The Robots Are Anxious About Taking Your Job
MACHINE LEARNINGS

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It’s a typical scene — a patient lays on a couch talking to his shrink. He was forced to sing and dance in front of a crowd, you see. There were so many people, some of whom were singing in an unfamiliar language. 

“All the people, people everywhere, pushing things at my screen, laughing at me,” the patient says with a metallic nervousness.

Fairly ordinary — were it not for the fact that the the patient is a telepresence robot who, earlier that day, had acted as the medium for an Israeli couple attending their grandson’s bar mitzvah in San Francisco.

The tongue-in-cheek video, posted earlier this year on YouTube, shows glimpses of a talis-clad robot dancing the hora. The psychiatrist pronounces the robot to have a multiple personality disorder.​

The shrink is Joanne Pransky, the self-proclaimed World’s First Robot Psychiatrist®. Pransky has seen other patients with similar turmoil — an industrial robot-turned-bartender, a robot receptionist with social anxiety. And though Pransky does her work at least part in jest (indeed, she is not a licensed psychiatrist, at least for humans), she aims to reveal issues with the “human operating system” — that is, compatibility issues between human and robot.

“I try to bridge the gap between the fiction and reality of robots,” Pransky says. “I try to create awareness [about robots], which can lead to their acceptance.”

Robots, for better or worse, are making their way into our lives, but for many people, the technology has advanced faster than our ability to cope with it. Which can, and does, cause anxiety. To help ease it, roboticists and communicators such as Pransky are addressing these uncomfortable feelings in order to create a bridge between technology and the people wary of it.

If they succeed in bringing harmony between the machines and humanity, the robots may ultimately make our lives better and easier. At least, this is what they promise.

 Erik Carter

The Robots Do Not Want To Take Your Job

People often think of a robot as something that functions somewhat autonomously and can move in a number of directions, called degrees of freedom. But there’s no clear point at which a gadget turns from an appliance to a sophisticated robot. A device that stamps paper in a factory is probably a machine, an autonomous car is probably a robot. But is a human-controlled drone a robot? How about a coffee machine that starts on a timer?

“If you want to have fun or be mean, go to a robotics conference and ask people to define ‘robot.’ Nobody has a good answer… but you know it when you see it,” says Steve Cousins, CEO of Savioke, a robotics company.

Cousins and his collaborators have created a robot that, when you see it, leaves little room for argument around its robot-ness. Savioke’s Relay is a robot with a singular purpose: autonomously deliver items to hotel guests. When a guest requests toothpaste or an extra towel, the hotel staff puts the item in the top compartment in Relay’s waist-high cylindrical body. Relay then uses its artificial intelligence software and sensors to navigate to the guest’s room and deliver the item. The guest never has to see a human in the process.

Robots, for better or worse, are making their way into our lives.

Predictably, there’s a common refrain when Cousins arrives at hotels to demonstrate what Relay can do.

“There’s inevitably a bellhop at the front desk who says, ‘Oh that robot’s going to take my job.’ They always say that,” Cousins says. His response is that bellhops aren’t strictly necessary for hotels to function — plenty of (usually lower-end) hotels function without them — but they add a welcoming human touch that no robot could take away. 

Still, he hears it anew at almost every hotel he visits. And once they get used to Relay, hotel staff love working with him, says Cousins. With Relay, front desk employees no longer have to drop what they’re doing to deliver items to guests.

Relay is now in a dozen mid- to high-range hotels, with more planned in the coming months, but has taken zero bellhop jobs, says Cousins. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Guests book rooms at these hotels just to see Relay in action, and managers have had to hire more people to meet the demand.

Tom Beedon, the general manager of the Residence Inn Los Angeles LAX where Relay (nicknamed Wally the Butler) delivers Starbucks beverages to guests, estimates that the robot has increased the hotel’s revenue per room by half a percent. Wally’s popularity even bleeds into the hotel’s Yelp reviews, too.

The idea that robots are going to make us obsolete extends into nearly every industry, even in jobs that humans don’t want to do, like repetitive factory work or dangerous tasks like investigating toxic chemical spills. It’s an embodiment of an abstract fear, that humans will be outsmarted by something we created and is now out of control.

Robots are a lightning rod for our fears and anxieties; a British Science Association survey from earlier this year found that 36 percent of those polled believed that the development of artificial intelligence put the long-term existence of humanity at risk. 

Hollywood plays into these fears. Sci-fi movies, from “I, Robot” to “Terminator” hinge on this theme of good-robot-turned-evil. The result is that an already-wary public leaves the theater feeling even more agitated. “A lot of attitudes were shaped by Hollywood, and those attitudes aren’t great for robotics people,” Cousins says. “Hollywood always makes robots turn violent.”

The idea that robots are going to make us obsolete extends into nearly every industry.

But those popular depictions of robots haven’t put a damper on business, Cousins notes. So far it’s been pretty easy to dissuade the fears of skeptics, especially when they see how friendly robots like Relay look. Still, he keeps working to bring nuance to the conversation about robots because people’s acceptance is a crucial way to drive innovation.

“People always worry that the next piece of automation will be the one that puts us all out of work. But it doesn’t. It changes work,” says Cousins.

Word processors and email got secretaries off their typewriters and telephones; while computers have phased out jobs like video store owner and telephone operator, those roles have been replaced with what Cousins calls “higher-value” jobs like video game programmer, 3D architectural designer, and social media specialist. Though currently, the people who suffer the most from this shift are those who lack access to computers or higher education to earn those jobs.

As robots have become more commonplace, most of humanity’s greatest fears have yet to be justified. Few have been killed by robots under non-war conditions (the first one, in 1979, has been called an “industrial accident”). And though robots have arguably passed the Turing test, a classic assessment of a computer’s intelligence, they are not sophisticated enough to simulate humans outside the digital realm, as some movies have foreshadowed. We are still quite a ways from “Ex Machina.”

Admittedly, some fears about robots aren’t as far-fetched. The more robotic eyes and ears that surround us, the more potential ways others can spy on us. There’s a reason why the director of the CIA keeps a piece of tape over his laptop’s built-in camera — the FBI has used malware to hack the camera of a suspected bomber to pinpoint his location. Earlier this year, the FBI could not confirm or deny a Gizmodo reporter’s inquiry, submitted as a Freedom of Information Act request, as to whether the agency was tapping the Amazon Echo. Oh, and there was that whole thing with Edward Snowden and the NSA. And if government agencies can infiltrate your devices, rogue hackers can probably do it, too.

 Erik Carter

Your Friendly Neighborhood Robot

There’s little question that robots can make human lives easier — even more enjoyable. Autonomous cars can help us crash less; telepresence and humanoid robots can help people with disabilities explore the world in new ways. The robotic seal Paro can comfort patients with dementia. That’s not to say that people should trust these robots immediately or wholeheartedly; a healthy dose of skepticism can help designers solve problems with robots, or even find new, helpful uses for them.

But the more irrational, abstract fears about robots have persisted in part because robots, relatively speaking, haven’t been in our daily lives for very long. The first autonomous robotic vacuum cleaner, the Electrolux Trilobite (the predecessor to the Roomba) came out in 2001. Unless you work at an auto plant or your company keeps a telepresence robot around, your daily interactions with robots are near non-existent.

The best way to put fears of robots to rest, it turns out, is to simply expose people to them. “If we don’t have [robots] in our reality, we default to what we see in science fiction, or movies or what we read,” Pransky says.

The difference between a scary and a comforting robot lies in its design. This can be a delicate line to tread. “We’re hardwired psychologically to anthropomorphize,” says Jodi Forlizzi, a professor at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. While humans want to see a bit of themselves in the robots, a robot that looks too human can also be freaky, a phenomenon known as the uncanny valley.

There are few universals when it comes to robot design, Forlizzi says. How a robot should look usually depends on the user and the context in which it’s used. Making a robot Pixar-like is useful for the burgeoning field of social robots, like Paro or Pepper, a humanoid robot designed to communicate with humans. Those robots have “eyes” which humans can look at when they’re interacting; even Relay has a slight curve near the screen to resemble a smile.

The best way to put fears of robots to rest, it turns out, is to simply expose people to them.

Jelle Saldien, professor of industrial design at Ghent University, advises his students to design social robots, the way animators make their characters. “Pixar and Disney excel in making virtual creatures with very expressive emotions,” says Saldien. “We’re trying not to copy the human, or any animal, and we don’t want to make it too realistic… what we tend to do, we make the robot cartoonish so it doesn’t look like it’s supposed to be a human or real living.” A designer should let a robot be a robot, and what that means to us will evolve, he adds.

And while cutesy, personable design features aren’t necessary for a robot that welds cars, any robot that people interact with in personal spaces, whether it’s in the home or in the service industry, may incorporate certain design elements with the intention of making the humans feel more comfortable around it.

As we go through the transition towards more robots, the DIY movement may provide a natural way to get apprehensive users to buy in, turning them from consumers of robots to collaborators in their design.

“We want to put robots in the hands of as many people as possible, to lower the threshold for getting involved in robotics. Robots are not in strange labs by dark companies that will be taking over the world,” Saldien says. “We’re afraid of robots because it’s out of our hands, and that’s why people get afraid. If we can build robots with the public, make it easy and more understandable, we can change how the public relates.”

Saldien anticipates that robots will become increasingly customizable for people’s different needs — putting the design process in the hands of the user. If people help create their own robots, they might be more accepting of them. Like Build-A-Bear, but for robots.

 Erik Carter

The Future Is Filled With Robots

The robots are, arguably, already in our homes. You might not think they’re robots, but they’re there. Maybe you have a Roomba, or a smart thermostat or a gadget that automatically feeds your hungry cat. The robot revolution is already underway.

Right now, though, robots are not sophisticated enough to do things we see in the movies. A robot can fold laundry, or move up or down stairs, but it can usually do that one task and little else (usually for an obnoxious amount of money).

But if a robot could do something highly specialized that humans can’t (or won’t) do ourselves — repetitive tasks like chores or dangerous things like cleaning our gutters — then they could have a far more profound impact on our daily lives than giving us the five minutes per day once used to slap cat food into a bowl.

That day is coming sooner than we expect. Cousins predicts that people will be seeing robots regularly in the next 5 to 10 years — “helper” robots will complete tasks in hotels, restaurants, healthcare centers, retail stores and more, he says. Autonomous cars will take us from one place to another with little traffic and risk of accident.

“There is no possible future where we stop progressing. We can’t go back and live in the past, it’s not a possibility,” Saldien says.

It’s okay to feel some apprehension about that, Pransky admits: “It’s a natural emotion to fear what we don’t know.” As we get used to robots in our daily lives, many of those fears will abate; for younger generations for whom having robots around is second nature, wariness of being around automation will likely disappear altogether.

Robots give us the potential to make our lives easier. But to do that, we have to look plainly at our human failings. We forget that we are not always efficient, that we are fallible. Only then can we make robots that make up for our imperfections. “The best use of robotic technology is we understand human weakness and we can augment it,” Cousins says.

To get us there psychologically, it’s ok to ask for a little help, even if it’s from a robot psychologist.

Looking for something else to read? Check out our Features archive.

Alexandra (Alex) Ossola is a freelance science journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in outlets such as Popular Science, The Atlantic, Newsweek, and Popular Mechanics, among others.

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