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We Fear Personal Robots

The conversation comes up over and over again – regardless of venue. Many people have a very real sense of dread and fear related to robots invading their lives. Similar to popular Star Wars movies, imaginations are going to the outer limits where no man has dared to venture. Perhaps the time has come to remind everyone to simply relax, as robots are not going to take over the world or displace millions of workers. The technology really is in its infancy stages, with limited capabilities at this point. However, advancement is a linear process where simple robotic assignments are mastered initially before moving forward to more complex duties. From a development standpoint, we are still a long distance from having technology that simulates human executive functioning and socialization. We are, however, closer to having robotic assistants capable of performing a number of tasks once considered impossible.

In order to gain some perspective on the anxiety related to robots in our daily lives, it would be prudent to look back at history. During the early years of the 20TH century, Henry Ford invented the Model T automobile. Mr. Ford’s goal was to build an affordable dependable vehicle that could meet the needs of the common man. Ostensibly, he achieved that goal as 15 million vehicles sold between 1908 and 1927, when the model was discontinued. Importantly, we must not overlook the introduction of the assembly line, which revolutionized work production.

We can safely surmise there was tremendous emotional upheaval with the automobile disrupting sales for the horse and buggy industry. Jobs were indeed at stake, yet society adjusted to those industry changes and many prospered due to the new economy. Further, the assembly line must have caused a great deal of consternation as the pressure to “mass produce” was undoubtedly met with resistance. The order of the day was experiencing culture shock that shook daily life in 1908 at its very core. Yet, society moved pass its fear of new technology,with trepidation, slowly gaining trust and confidence in the early version of the automobile.

Massive changes affecting how we live, work, and relate to one another has always invoked a degree of fear and uncertainty. There are many unanswered questions related to robots and how they will function among us, and how much autonomy they actually possess. These are concerns programmers must address in the quest to design machines that serve to increase our personal productivity and enhance quality of life. We would be better served in finding ways by which robots could be used to assist the elderly, those with disabilities, seniors suffering from Alzheimer’s, and other vulnerable members of society.

Our apprehensions are natural and there are many questions that remain surrounding issues such as jobs, safety, and privacy. However, taking a myopic view does not mitigate the serious challenges facing the growing autistic adult population. The world they are stepping into as adults is indeed filled with peril and uncertainty- but also unprecedented opportunities. Introducing technology into the lives of underserved members of the community can bring tremendous fulfillment, hope, and changed fortunes. Importantly, the same tenuous atmosphere of change existed in 1908. We have the choice of being paralyzed by fear, or taking the leap of faith required to embrace the future.