Was Trump Elected to Take Revenge on Job-Stealing Robots?

If so, he's doing great work.


Daron Acemoglu is no ally of robotkind. The MIT economist is one of the most prominent advocates of the theory that automation depresses employment and wages, at least for low-skilled workers.

In a 2017 paper, Acemoglu and his Boston University colleague Pascual Restrepo produced a series of maps of "robot exposure" and its economic effects in the United States. The results look awfully similar to maps of the districts that tilted Republican in the last election, with a thick red band stretching through the Rust Belt and the Deep South. As Acemoglu later told The New York Times, "The swing to Republicans between 2008 and 2016 is quite a bit stronger in commuting zones most affected by industrial robots. You don't see much of the impact of robots in prior presidential elections."

In other words, the white, non-college-educated, disproportionately male Americans whose old jobs are now performed by machines were especially likely to embrace Donald Trump's form of economic populism and protectionism.

Acemoglu's methodology for investigating the causal relationship between robots and employment is controversial, but there's no denying that the places where robots abound—largely due to their adoption in the manufacturing and fabrication plants that dominate certain regions' economies—were also the sites of striking partisan shifts in the last presidential election.

Are these voters right to worry? And are they right to look to Trump to slow or stop the economic effects of automation?

Robot makers typically go out of their way to reassure the public that they are not looking to replace human beings. Consider Flippy, a burger-cooking robot that started working the lunchtime shift at the Pasadena Caliburger restaurant in March. Its manufacturer has been talking out of both sides of his mouth about whether Flippy is a substitute for people or just a super fun A.I. buddy to hang out with near the griddle.

"The kitchen of the future will always have people in it, but we see that kitchen as having people and robots," Miso Robotics CEO David Zito told KTLA. "This technology is not about replacing jobs—we see Flippy as that third hand." But Zito also plays up the liabilities in having human beings do the "dull, dirty, and dangerous work around the grill, the fryer, and other prep work like chopping onions."

For now, Flippy works with a human partner, who places the cheese and condiments on the cooked patties and wraps the final product. But the public is skeptical of these claims that we can have it all, and Flippy's debut was greeted with the now customary spate of commentary about how the robots are stealing jobs.

Robot panic can take other, more visceral forms as well. Consider a video that went viral in February. A headless robot dog with its legs on backward trots up to a closed door. After checking out the door handle, it notices a similar robot approaching—this one equipped with a prehensile arm where its head should be. The second dog robot turns the handle, holds the door open, and waves its pal though before following. The door closes gently behind them.

When Boston Dynamics released that footage of its latest creation, SpotMini, reactions ranged from "aw, they're friends" to "oh God, I remember when the velociraptors did that in Jurassic Park." The company, which was once owned by Google, has worked on projects funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and freaking out over its periodic video releases of quasi-mammalian helper robots is a bit of an internet tradition. But this one elicited a particularly strong reaction, even though SpotMini is consciously styled to be cute and pet-like, and to function in domestic environments rather than on battlefields or factory floors.

A second video, released a few days later, shows a person trying to prevent the robot dog from exiting the room. He interferes by holding the door shut, knocking the robot's grasper away from the handle, and generally getting in the way. Thus, it joins another genre of internet videos, in which engineers test the robustness of their creations by adding extra levels of difficulty to the robot's assigned task—for some reason, often with a hockey stick.

This meddling tends to provoke outrage from viewers, but for different reasons. Some people identify with the robot, imagining that it would be quite frustrating to be told to pick up a box or manipulate a lever and then be thwarted repeatedly by a dude in a hoodie holding a stick. Likely for this reason, the text accompanying the Boston Dynamics release reassures the audience: "This testing does not irritate or harm the robot."

But an equal number of viewers worry about the robots' eventual revenge, fretting that the engineers "will be the first up against the wall when The Revolution comes" and invoking SkyNet from the Terminator movies.

The pathetic fallacy is a mental error in which people ascribe human feelings or thoughts to inanimate objects. This mostly leads to irrational behavior, such as resentment on behalf of robots that don't smart from mistreatment but instead grow smarter. It's the same shorthand of thought you indulge in when you say the robots are invading workplaces or stealing jobs. In fact, those are nonsensical concepts, at least for robots as they are currently constituted. Human beings are replacing some portions of many other human beings' jobs with labor-saving devices, as we have done for hundreds of years using tools such as tractors, blenders, and washing machines.

In March, Trump finalized a plan to levy import tariffs of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum. Many industries (and their customers) will take a hit, but perhaps no one will be affected more than the metal men among us.

Is this the revenge on the robots that Trump voters were hoping for?