The Robots are Coming!

It seems like we’ve been talking about this forever. When I was a kid, I remember my grade school teacher asking us, “What will it be like in the year 2000?” That was an intriguing question. It’s fun to think about the future and what things will be like, but we pretty much had it all wrong. We talked about flying cars, and robot maids, like we saw on tv (remember the Jetsons?).

Well, our cars don’t fly (at least my car doesn’t fly) and we don’t all have robot maids (there is the occasional Roomba vacuum, and my neighbor has a robotic lawn mower), but we do all have phones in our pockets. That was something none of us saw coming. In the 70’s my mother timed me whenever I used the phone, and after about 2 minutes, she started asking me how much longer I’d be talking. It was different back then. Communication was different, and our lives were different. Today the phones in our pockets are computers – they allow us to control other devices, to navigate with maps, to store and share our photos, to listen to music, and yes, they even let us talk to people!

We have plenty of robots today – but they generally don’t look like we thought they’d look. Most factories have robots that assemble things. They’re just machines that are built and programmed to do a specific job or task. Look at all the self serve checkouts in stores. Robots that have taken many of the jobs people used to do. Self serve McDonalds. I’ve heard about that, but never experienced one myself.

I remember going to the Smithsonian, probably in the early 70’s sometime. They had an exhibit showing a prototype of the automated teller machine (ATM). We could actually try it out – they gave us a plastic card and we put it in the machine, typed a sample PIN, and got a bunch of fake money! Cool – we could go to the bank anytime we wanted! Robot bank tellers! Even though we saw this stuff, it was hard to imagine how it would all fit into our lives. Things were so different back then. I lived in a rural area, and never lived in a larger city until after high school. Our lives were a lot slower. I honestly remember thinking, “This is nice, but I’ll never actually use one of those teller machines.”

I used to park at O’Hare airport when flying out of Chicago, and one day noticed that all the people working in ticket booths were gone. They had switched over to using machines where people could pay parking fees. A little while later I was flying out of their again, and all the people were back in the ticket booths. I asked the lady on my way out, “Why are you all back here and the machines are gone?” She told me they were all out of work, and the city decided to bring them back. That’s a good thing – and I’m all for keeping people in jobs, and not creating robots to put people out of work – but that’s an example of robots in our lives that we don’t even really think about. I remember, as a kid, and my dad stopping to pay people at toll booths. That was normal – and a normal job people had. Now, most tolls are taken electronically. That’s just reality.

It’s my opinion that there are jobs robots are good at, and it’s not worth wasting a person to do the job a robot can do. However, as software developers, I think it’s our responsibility to not only build systems that automate tasks, but to also make ways to keep people working, in jobs that robots can’t do, or can’t do well. As we automate our world, it’s part of our job to make ways to keep people working, and make them more productive, and more efficient through the use of technology – not to just eliminate jobs.

I find it interesting that what we thought about the future, 40 or 50 years ago, isn’t exactly what life is like today. We were right in thinking that it would be different, we just didn’t fully understand where we were going and how it would be different – at least I didn’t.

Do you remember the days when toll booths had people? I’d love to hear your thoughts on robots and how your view of the future has changed.