Writing About Robots: Good and Bad

Automation is good, unless the thing you're automating shouldn't be done in the first place.


Kevin Kelly has a thoughtful piece on robots in Wired, mixing familiar economic arguments about automation with reporting on current robotics research. "While the displacement of formerly human jobs gets all the headlines, the greatest benefits bestowed by robots and automation come from their occupation of jobs we are unable to do," he argues:

We don't have the attention span to inspect every square millimeter of every CAT scan looking for cancer cells. We don't have the millisecond reflexes needed to inflate molten glass into the shape of a bottle. We don't have an infallible memory to keep track of every pitch in Major League Baseball and calculate the probability of the next pitch in real time.

We aren't giving "good jobs" to robots. Most of the time we are giving them jobs we could never do. Without them, these jobs would remain undone.

The essay may seem a little overstated at times, as futuristic features often do, but there are several solid ideas at its core. That's more than you can say for Philip N. Howard's Slate story "Let's Build Pro-Democracy Twitter Bots," a Thomas Friedmanesque proposal to spam the world into freedom.

It's risible enough to suggest that what people struggling for self-government in other countries need is a guiding hand from the West. The idea that this hand should take the form of automated Twitter accounts is even more condescending. The "democracy bots need to be engaging, and promote stories about what life is like in countries where freedom and faith coexist," Howard writes—by, say, "send[ing] links about life in countries with peace, order, and good governance to moms blogging about their parenting troubles, students getting caught up in the Eurovision contest, and government workers reading online news from sources outside their country." Because that's what an Iranian mom really needs: The sort of spam I get when I mention a cup of coffee on Twitter, only instead of promoting a coffeemaker it promotes life in the U.S.A. With all due respect to Kelly, some jobs should remain undone.