Posted by: structureofnews | August 28, 2014

Robots Among Us

Number_Six_Tricia_HelferAny sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magicArthur C. Clarke

It’s not often I can squeeze a picture of Tricia Helfer, a reference to Battlestar Galactica and a quote from science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke in a single post, but that really speaks to the power of not having an editor. And incoherence.

But there is an underlying theme here, and it’s this: Robots!

There’s even an underlying point, and it’s about what we think about when we think of robots, automation and how our world is changing – and how we might want to think about how we cover all that.

This is all apropos of a number of articles that have come out recently about robots and automation – from a Pew Report on AI, Robotics and the Future of Jobs, a handy (and smart) Quartz graphic about what jobs are likely to be automated, an Atlantic story about the original paper that the Quartz graphic was based on, and an Economist piece just before a book on the subject came out. They’re all interesting articles that focus largely around how the rise of smarter and more capable machines will affect employment – an important theme that certainly needs covering.

But the trouble with words like “robot,” or even “automation,” is that they make us think of discrete changes to our worlds – in other words, of new species come to live among us. Or, as the Pew report noted:

Depictions of robotics and artificial intelligence in popular culture often lean towards powerful anthropomorphic robots (Transformers, The Terminator) and hulking mainframes with human-like intelligence (HAL in 2001). But many of the experts who responded to this survey expect technology to evolve in the opposite direction, with machine intelligence being hidden deep in the complex workings of outwardly simple or even invisible devices and digital interactions.

In other words, we shouldn’t think about robots as the clunky Robby the Robot that you saw in Forbidden Planet, but more as the advanced “skin jobs” – as embodied by Ms. Helfer, above – that the Cylon machine race used to infiltrate human worlds in Battlestar Galactica (an aside: Best. Show. Ever. Stop reading now and binge watch all four seasons. I’ll wait.)

Or, to put it yet another way, the robots are already here.

Not here in terms of lumbering thousand-pound hunks of steel that cunningly hide themselves as cars, but as lines of code even more cunningly embedded in the whole range of daily devices, processes and appliances we use – part of our ordinary fabric of life, from the prices we’re quoted at Staples to augmented reality shopping apps to the filters that we don’t even see when we search for something on Google.

Perhaps we wouldn’t call these “robots,” but whatever they are, they’re playing an increasing role in helping us navigate through real and virtual worlds. As John Markoff, a science writer at the New York Times, is quoted as saying in the Pew report:

Over the next decade the ubiquitous computing era will come into full force. Computers will ‘disappear’ and ordinary objects will become magic. Significantly, Steve Jobs was the first one to really understand this. But the pace is relentless.

The pace is relentless, and while there’s a reasonable amount of coverage of new companies and ideas, and of broader issues such as automation and employment, there’s much less about the day-to-day impact of such technological forces in our lives.  Predictive policing, for example, has a potentially huge impact on society, but we tend to cover it as a trend, rather than the specifics of the algorithm that’s in use in your town. Who wrote it? Who maintains it? What are its assumptions and biases? How well does it work?  Likewise, algorithmic trading accounts for the vast majority of stock market volume in the US, but market reports remain focused on people in the market rather than delving into the intricacies of dueling programs trying to outsmart each other, and what that meant for the price of GM stock today.

I realize: Easier said than done.

But if our role is to help explain the world to people, this is a big part of the world – and a growing part – that remains a mystery to most people (and, in some cases, to their makers as well).

There are good reasons why we haven’t noticed some of the changes.  The Pew report quotes Olivier Crepin-Leblond, managing director of Global Information Highway Ltd, as noting that:

…An enormous amount of automata will replace humans—from automated passport gates at border control, to onsite vending machines, automated floor cleaners, window cleaning machines, driving trains, cars etc. Our day-to-day life will remain the same, but those jobs performed in the past by what some call ‘invisible people,’ will be performed by ‘invisible robots.’ How many people remember the face of the ticket collector on their train? That’s what I mean by ‘invisible people.’

Still, that invisibility – ubiquity – is even more of a reason we should cover this more regularly, and more intensely.  That’s not to say these are unwelcome developments – they may be, or they may not be – but that we need to better understand who’s creating and testing them, how or if they’re regulated, what assumptions and biases are built into them.  (This is a particular focus of Nick Diakopoulos, now at the University of Maryland J-school, who’s written a nice report on it for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.)

And the pace isn’t likely to slow down.  The Economist piece cites MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, authors of Race Against the Machine and The Second Machine Age, to underscore the speed of coming change:

Their argument rests on an underappreciated aspect of the exponential growth in chip processing speed, memory capacity and other computer metrics: that the amount of progress computers will make in the next few years is always equal to the progress they have made since the very beginning. Mr Brynjolfsson and Mr McAfee reckon that the main bottleneck on innovation is the time it takes society to sort through the many combinations and permutations of new technologies and business models.

Even the real steel-and-chrome robots may be coming soon.  The Atlantic points out that:

Navigating a crowded street isn’t mindlessly routine. It needs a deft combination of spacial awareness, soft focus, and constant anticipation–skills that are quintessentially human. But I don’t need to tell you about Google’s self-driving cars, because they’re one of the most over-covered stories in tech today.

And that’s the most remarkable thing: In a decade, the idea of computers driving cars went from impossible to boring.

Still, if it makes you feel better – and it shouldn’t; there are lots of other ways journalists’ jobs are at risk – the Quartz interactive shows that reporters and correspondents, although they don’t earn a lot on average, are relatively safe from automation. Interestingly, it says that editors, who make a tad more money, are even safer. I know: The world’s not fair.


  1. […] dismissed just 10 or so years ago, are now very close to reality.  So it’s pretty likely physical robots will be much more a part of our lives soon, and we will need to figure out how they’ll respond to the multiple ethical decisions their […]

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