Previous: 14 Facts About Magic
Next: The History of Jell-O Salad



View count:22,540
Last sync:2024-04-19 14:00
World domination and workplace automation... should we be worried? Maybe! It's complicated! Let's talk about some common myths and misconceptions about robots.

Join host Justin (@juddtoday) as he breaks down the history of robots, from ancient steam-powered birds to Leonardo da Vinci's automaton knight.

Who would win in the ultimate robo death match?

A T-800, C3PO, or The Iron Giant? The answer: none of them, because those robots are all fictional and this would never happen.

But robots ARE a very real part of the modern word—even if they don’t drop sassy one-liners or learn the meaning of love. From car factories to your vacuum cleaner, robots are entering the mainstream. But that doesn’t mean we fully understand them.

Today on Misconceptions, I, your host, Justin Dodd, will break down some common myths and misconceptions about robots, from the likelihood of them taking your job, to the likelihood of them taking over the world. Let’s get started. Oh and by the way, my money is on Wall-E taking home the robot cage-match trophy.

Don’t @ me. These two fields oftentimes get lumped together into one big nerdy subject. Robots and AI, they’re the same thing, right?

While the Venn diagram definitely features plenty of overlap, there are important distinctions. Robotics involves the study and design of machines that can carry out tasks. Here’s NASA’s super straightforward definition of robotics, which I find hilarious: “Robotics is the study of robots.

Robots are machines that can be used to do jobs. Some robots can do work by themselves. Other robots must always have a person telling them what to do.” Simple, right?

Think: a finely tuned machine that helps assemble cars, or your Roomba. (And by the way, robots aren’t necessarily humanoid in design. In fact, any robot that resembles a human should probably be considered an android. Also, while we’re at it, a cyborg is not the same thing as an android. A cyborg is an organism—often a human being—with robotic enhancements.

OK, sorry, just had to clear all those up.) So, what is artificial intelligence? According to Britannica, “The term is frequently applied to the project of developing systems endowed with the intellectual processes characteristic of humans, such as the ability to reason, discover meaning, generalize, or learn from past experience.” AI is coding and programming. Think Watson, the supercomputer who crushes opponents on Jeopardy, or even Siri on your iPhone.

And while your dad might call Siri “that nice robot lady on my phone,” the programming that makes Siri able to listen to and respond to your requests is a part of the AI family, not robotics. But then... we have something like Sophia. If you’re unfamiliar, Sophia is a sometimes charming, sometimes terrifying social robot designed by Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics.

She was named the first ever Innovation Champion by the UN Development Programme and she also has Saudi citizenship. She can hold conversations, make realistic facial expressions, and casually drop deep and eerie quips. For example, when asked if humans should be scared of robots, Sophia responded, “Someone said ‘we have nothing to fear but itself.

What did he know?” Ooph. Gives me goosebumps. So what is Sophia?

A robot, or AI? Well, she’s both. Her body, her motor functions, her physical design is a product of robotics.

Her ability to listen, respond, and learn from language and her surroundings... that's AI. There is often overlap between the two fields, and many fairly simple robots are now being designed to incorporate elements of artificial intelligence. But if you call the simplest robot vacuums out there—which are still designed to do one task, over and over—artificially Intelligent, you may very well be stretching the phrase beyond meaning.

In a recent List Show video on word origins, we established that the word robot, in reference to automatons, was first used in 1920 by a Czech playwright in a piece called Rossum’s Universal Robots. So, it’s safe to say that robots have only been around, even in theory, for about a century, right? Well set your phasers to stunned, because I’m about to blow your mind.

Some actually think that the first robot was made by a dude named Archytas. If that sounds like a BCE name, you’d be right. He was a Greek mathematician who lived around 400 BCE.

He apparently invented a wooden bird that was capable of flight, possibly through the use of steam power. Bam. Robo-steam bird.

Let’s jump forward to the mid-16th century, when a mathematician who worked for Emperor Charles V built a fully functioning automaton. Resembling a monk, this 15-inch wooden and iron figurine could walk around, strike his chest, raise a cross, and move his head—all on its own, more or less. It had workings similar to that of a clock, and is in my opinion, absolutely a tiny baby robot monk.

If you’re not impressed by these early renditions of robots like some kind of modern robo-snob, at least take a gander at Leonardo da Vinci’s robot. In 1495, Leonardo made designs for a functioning, humanoid automaton knight. It could sit, stand, move its arms—everything you’d ever want from a robot Lancelot.

It functioned entirely by a series of pulleys and cables and even had a working jaw. It’s not known if Leonardo ever built it, but since the discovery of the design, the knight has been recreated using the original instructions and it does, in fact, work. How cool is that?

Look, let’s just admit it. We’re all a little scared that robots are going to take over the world. It feels like every single piece of sci-fi ever made is trying to warn us about this exact scenario.

We make an army of robots, their AI teaches them that humans are obsolete and/or bad, and they wipe out humanity. I, Robot; Terminator; The Matrix; these movies all seem pretty clear in their message. Remember Rossum’s Universal Robots, the FIRST robot story?

Spoiler alert, the robots in it take over the world. And that was the first one! Hal-9000 may not have achieved world domination, but he’s still the poster computer for DO NOT TRUST MACHINES.

One explanation for our fear of robot overlords might be the Uncanny Valley theory. Masahiro Mori, a roboticist, developed this theory back in 1970. It basically proposes a relationship between the look of artificial humanoids and how terribly uncomfortable they make us feel.

In general, the theory goes, the more something like a robot resembles a human, the more we grow fond of it. But at some point in that progression we reach the “valley” where our brains say: “this is not right.” Some say that at that point the object starts to seem more like something distinctly *un*life-like, like a corpse. Others say its near-accuracy makes us more aware of the tiny flaws that eventually reveal themselves in its mimicry.

Whatever the mechanism, the effect is an uncomfortable one. Take, for example, this toy robot. There’s nothing uncomfortable about it because it doesn’t really look human, despite some vaguely human features.

But now look at Tom Hanks in The Polar Express. AAHHH. It’s almost human but something about it makes your skin crawl.

That’s the Uncanny Valley. fMRI readings have shown that our prefrontal cortex and amygdala are activated when being creeped out by robot humanoids—areas partially associated with executive function and phobias, respectively. This is science, baby. But the scientific literature tells a complex story.

Multiple studies have shown that we feel empathy for robots we perceive to be in pain. When shown videos of a human woman and a robot dinosaur being hurt, participants in a 2013 study showed similar cognitive reactions to both. And our robot-empathy extends beyond physical pain.

In a 2016 study, when a robot expressed regret about "mistakes" it had made earlier in the experiment, subjects actually felt bad for it. They graded the robot less harshly than they did a robot that showed no “emotion.” So if our fear AND empathy towards robots are both natural, then why are we so scared of evil robots? Professor of psychology Iris Berent ascribes our unease to cognitive dissonance.

Generally when human beings encounter the world, we can neatly divide things between inanimate objects and "living agents." A basketball is an unthinking object, subject to the laws of physics, while a person or cat has motivations—they can start to move because they decide to. Robots complicate this binary. As Berent points out, our discomfort when confronted with these messy boundaries seems to predate our modern fear of robots.

Think about Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, for example, or the golem from Jewish folklore. The monsters in both stories are made from inanimate materials but achieve a kind of sentience, and in both cases they rebel against their creator. (Though, I should point out that there’s a great variety of golem stories out there, and that the particular structure I outlined only applies to some of them. Apparently some golems do exactly what their creators ask, with potentially disastrous results, like a much scarier Amelia Bedelia).

Frankenstein, especially, seems to encode within its story an anxiety about the danger of scientific discovery. And let’s face it: reality reinforces that apprehension. From splitting the atom to the Internet, human history is littered with examples of technological progress bringing with it devastating consequences, intended and otherwise.

It's reasonable to think that advances in robotics could come with similar drawbacks, but that doesn't necessarily mean some kind of nightmarish Skynet scenario. Robots probably aren’t going to walk down the streets, rounding up people and shoving them into human zoos. But they could pose threats to things like personal privacy and security, democracy, and the future of our economy.

These are real fears, but they aren’t as exciting as a sci-fi war, so it makes sense they get less screen time. Berent summed up the fear of the robot rebellion with this: “When we focus so much of our attention on improbable scenarios, we run the risk of ignoring other problems posed by AI that are pressing and preventable. Before we can give those very real dangers the attention they deserve, we should rein in our irrational fears that arise from within.” Well put.

FlossBot, transition to the next misconception please. “I’m sorry Justin, I’m afraid I can’t do that” Uh oh. While fears of robots violently taking over the world are mostly grounded in science-fiction, fears of robots taking over the workforce are not so far fetched. Being replaced by a more efficient, cheaper, and less-likely-to-be-injured-and-sue-someone robotic worker is a very real concern in the modern age.

So let’s talk about it. Let’s get one thing straight from the get-go, robots are definitely going to replace human workers. They already have, in many industries.

From agriculture to manufacturing, many jobs that were once done by humans are now done by robots. And this is not a new concept. Innovation has always led to a restructuring of the workforce.

The invention of the assembly line made some factory jobs obsolete, just as the invention of the Xerox machine did in the office. An ATM is literally an Automated teller machine—it was designed to do the job of a human bank teller. But interestingly, research shows that the number of bank tellers did not get reduced to zero because of these machines, but rather has stayed fairly steady.

The savings that ATMs provided allowed banks to open new branches, which required the hiring of more people. The impact of innovation on employment is rarely black and white. But this new era of innovation feels… different.

Robotics and AI have gotten to a point where it seems like most jobs are going to have artificial replacements in the next few decades. Should we be concerned? Some groups say that there’s nothing to worry about because the loss of jobs will be offset by the creation of new ones.

According to the World Economic Forum, 85 million jobs globally will be disrupted due to automation. But, in response, by their estimate, 97 million new jobs will emerge. A net positive.

But even if these projections are right, it doesn’t address a chief concern: that many people will not have the proper skills, training, or interest in these new tech jobs. If an administrative office worker or fast-food cashier gets replaced, they probably can’t just hop into a job in robotics. The key will be for individual companies, unions, governments, and other organizations to support workers during this transition—and perhaps even into a future where employment is much rarer than it is today.

Saadia Zahidi, managing director of the WEF, says that, “In the future, we will see the most competitive businesses are the ones that have invested heavily in their human capital – the skills and competencies of their employees.” And of course, there are some jobs that humans will always be better equipped to do. At least… for a long time. Jobs that require social intelligence and creativity, or jobs that don't take place in a very organized setting like a warehouse or factory should be particularly difficult to automate.

We're not going to wake up tomorrow in a jobless world run by machines, but the future is far from certain. What will the economy of the future look like, when robots and computers can do tasks that would've seemed impossible a generation ago? What are the drawbacks of efficiency, if any?

What's the role of work in human life? Frank and sometimes difficult conversations are gonna need to happen, and it'll be humans, not robots, who need to have them… For now. Thanks for watching Misconceptions.

Make sure to subscribe to Mental Floss where we promise to always have human hosts… until it financially makes more sense to hire a robot. Wait, what? Is that true?