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Fighting Robots With Robots


So machines are now able to assess a human’s mood. “Emotion detection software” has put robots one step closer to replacing the humans who work — or used to work — in what we in the olden days called “customer relations.”

Assuming that you, dear reader, are a human and not a column-consuming robot, you may be asking the question: What happens to the jobs of humans who were laboring under the impression that they could still do things machines couldn’t?

That’s a good question, says Zeynep Tufekci, an information expert at the University of North Carolina. Robots can now interview people at the border and identify phony documents, she writes. One imagines they can hire other machines.

Robots are getting better at holding conversations, and their voices can now sound as if they are reacting in a heartfelt way to the human’s remarks. More like Candice Bergen, one supposes, and less like ED-209, the robot in RoboCop. (“Please put down your wea-pon. You now have 15 se-conds to com-ply.”)

Marketers may soon use robots to deliver “mood-targeted” advertising. Sales robots are being programmed to assess your level of interest and personality type. They’ve got the algorithms, mined from your digital activities, and may very well know how much buying power is left on your credit card.

Suppose you’re looking at running shoes. What chance do you have against a sales machine programmed to respond to your every gaze and sigh — who knows your shoe size and past purchases of athletic apparel?

What you need is a machine to fight the machine. You need a shopping robot who knows your style, colors, price range, needs, and wants — but whose poker-faced panel reacts to the sales machine’s pitch with supreme indifference. You need a shopping robot who doesn’t gasp with desire and shout “me want” into the sales machine’s audio analyzer. That way, your shopping robot can extract the maximum discount from the sales robot.

It sounds so efficient. Robots make the running shoes, sell the running shoes and buy the running shoes by the most cost-effective means possible.

But there’s a problem. Who’s going to pay for the running shoes? I mean, if a robot can do your job taking drink orders, reading ultrasounds or selling washing machines, how are you going to earn the wherewithal to buy stuff?

“Machines are getting smarter,” Tufekci notes, “and they’re coming for more and more jobs.” Furthermore, the jobs they are coming for are no longer limited to those requiring little in the way of skills.

Human resistance may be futile. Robots don’t sleep, get sick or take vacations. Unless programmed by a criminal, they don’t walk out with the employer’s paper clips or coffee mugs. (And they have sensors in the back of their heads to catch any human trying to do that kind of thing.)

So all you humans working insane hours, taking stimulants to better focus on the job, answering corporate email on the weekends — your efforts may be in vain. A robot can always outpace you.

Humans will be left with a very simple role in future economic transactions: Their function will be to fork over dollars some working person earned back in the 20th century.

Of course, those 20th-century dollars will eventually run out. But technology may eventually be deployed to find something economically useful for humans to do. Have faith in the future. Humans are still the only beings on the planet able to binge shop and make impulse purchases.

But also be on guard. The day you see a robot wearing running shoes, you’ll know you are truly in trouble.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at 

Photo: Bill Dickinson via Flickr


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