Local & State Voices

The robots are coming ... or are they?

Pepper the robot giving information to people visiting the 2017 Viva technology event, which is dedicated to startup development, innovation and digital technology.
Pepper the robot giving information to people visiting the 2017 Viva technology event, which is dedicated to startup development, innovation and digital technology. AFP/Getty Images

The pace of technological change in the workplace, if reportage is to be believed, is breathless. The average Queen City working stiff can be forgiven for looking over his shoulder, sure that this time robots really are coming for his job.

Good news! We humans can relax, for the promises of disruption are vastly overblown. I say this not simply because to date, Big Tech has failed to deliver on jetpacks, heat-vision, and ensuring my mid-afternoon Twix falls from the office vending machine.

I say this as a man who has studied the matter closely, a polymath cut from Leonardo da Vinci cloth, who keeps abreast of every cutting-edge technology making headlines today. When it comes to disruptive innovation, I know a thing or two.

Take artificial intelligence. I’ve been using this for decades, notably at cocktail parties. Pretending to understand themes in paintings, movements in symphonies, the allure of Tilda Swinton — why, I’m as artificially intelligent as they come.

Despite a clear first-mover advantage, AI has conferred no benefit upon my reputation or bank account. I said as much in a recent Ted Talk, which you wouldn’t know unless you were my neighbor Ted, with whom I talked.

Nor is there anything to see in machine learning. Why should humans care to think like blenders? Do the almonds I toss in my morning smoothie grind its gears? Do blenders even get puns? Machines learning to think and do specific tasks like humans, well sure, that would be concerning. But we’re not talking about that.

Silicon Valley can run virtual reality product after product up its flagpole; I’ll never salute. Their entire premise is flawed, for (if I’m getting this right) the better this technology, the more like the user’s reality. But the more like my reality, the less I want it.

My reality features no winning baccarat hands in Monaco, no downhill-swooshing with supermodels in Gstaad. Mine includes getting athlete’s foot at the water park where I just took my kids. Who’d pay to simulate that?

I fear no sting from the internet-of-things, the Wi-Fi-enabled connectivity of everyday household appliances. My kitchen table already sounds like “The McLaughlin Group” when my large family gathers. Now I’m to welcome gratuitous chatter from my toaster? As John McLaughlin himself put it, Wrong!

Smart contracts should terrify the lawyer in me, but I hear only a boy crying wolf. After all, just slapping a “smart” prefix on something — smart diplomacy, smart power, smart casual — doesn’t make it so.

The way I see it, the contract that keeps me from breaching is smart. The one that silently watches me like Boo Radley and then calculates the damages I owe isn’t smart, just creepy.

Am I misunderstanding the basic meaning of these disruptive technologies, and what they portend for the future of labor? Perhaps. But if so, my very human frailties light the path forward, to job security for all of mankind.

Continue to do your work well, fellow Charlotteans, just quirkily. Coders hate illogicality when replicating human workflows. After enough exceptions, they’ll give up on automating your job, and turn their attention to more important matters. Like jetpacks.

Kerrigan is a Charlotte attorney. Email: mikekerrigan29@gmail.com
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