The robot will see you now…

Article by Michael Szollosy

Where have all the workers gone?

Where have all the workers gone?

The idea that robots will replace human labour hasbeen around since, technically, before there was even such a thing as robots. It is an intriguing history: We can trace our fears of being displaced by mechanised labour back to the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution, as automated looms, powered by the magic of steam engines, meant less employment for skilled workers.

The very origin of the word ‘robot’ is a part of this history, and reflects these fears.

Čapek’s R.U.R.

Čapek’s R.U.R.

Karel Čapek’s 1920 play, R.U.R., in which the word ‘robot’ first appears in its modern usage, portrays a factory where all of the workers are manufactured humanoid slaves  robota in Czech means ‘forced labour’) who [spoiler alert] eventually rise up and overthrow their creators. (A famous plot endlessly repeated, and mirrored, to an extent, in another important historical footnote, 1927’s iconic Metropolis, which is also a story about machines replacing human labour and its consequences.)

And now, in a new twist on this old theme – or, looked at from another way, the inevitable evolution of our anxieties – we are being told that whatever jobs are left to we humans will be filled by robotic recruiting consultants, who will analyse the data (i.e. human CVs) to find the best matches for those few jobs that, miraculously, robots are incapable of doing.

However, despite what might described as a bit of excitement at the possibility, there is really nothing new about this. Machines have long had a hand, so to speak, in helping to determine good matches between jobs and potential employees, just as versions of artificial intelligence are presently also finding us potential husbands and wives, new favourite songs and our next favourite books.

The idea that it will be ‘robots’ that will be recruiting human employees is clearly a hook, and not a particularly helpful one. (Especially when the news comes complete with illustrations of sometimes cute, sometimes overly stern – and always unnecessarily expensive – humanoid robots.)

So the news really is… not news. But there’s nothing new in that either, not when it comes to robots, or technology more generally. So, if there is nothing remarkable about machines helping to organise our lives, why is this question of ‘robot recruiters’ such a popular topic at the moment?

The workers and the machines in Metropolis (1927)

The workers and the machines in Metropolis (1927)

The answer, of course, lies in history, and our anxieties. We can trace the answer back to the Industrial Revolution and those dark Satanic mills. It is a new articulation of the old fear that we will be replaced by machines, that robots – versions of ourselves that do not tire, that do not require rests or holidays or maternity leave – will take our jobs. And more fundamentally here, the idea of robot recruiters goes one step further, unless, of course, you are actually in the recruiting industry itself, in which case the idea of robots doing recruitment, and doing it better than you, is already enough.

The idea that robots will find us jobs taps into the fact that we already know that robots are determining more and more about our lives – the suggestions, the pairings, the recommendations. But the robot recruiter also suggests that so many – perhaps for some people, too many – of our interactions are with machines that might be entirely rational and highly efficient, but somehow still less than human. And perhaps we’re not just thinking about our human-robot interactions, the voice inviting us to press 1 to pay a bill. There may also be a sense that many of our human-human interactions are similarly governed by a rigid inflexibility, that we are meeting other people that are somehow less than human.

And while normally we might embrace these interventions, and be grateful for the able assistance, we are – as ever – ambivalent about our relationship with technology. We are foreshadowing for ourselves potential downsides, negative impacts, and imagining that there are limits to how far we would like this trend to continue. These reservations are entirely legitimate and entirely rational, but in the absence of clear discussion or reasonable debate, they tend to be expressed in nightmare dystopian scenarios; we move from what is perhaps an unconscious suspicion that it may not be perfectly fine for a robot to help us find a fulfilling, well-paid job to imagining a world where a Skynet-styled AI alters our DNA while we are still in the test-tube and employs laser-gun wielding cyborgs to march human children from their Brave New Schools into their computer terminal prisons, where we will be connected to feeding tubes and implanted chips will cause us to explode should we ever try to leave.

But, as usual, such fantasies says much more about human beings than it does about the present or future abilities of robots and AI.

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