Anyone my age or older should remember Robby the Robot. The friendly life saving robot first appeared in the Forbidden Planet movie in 1956. In numerous subsequent science fiction movies and TV series, Robby obeyed his creator’s original software programming to do no harm. An early representation of Artificial Intelligence in action, Robby would ominously warn “Danger, Danger” when his human companions were in jeopardy.
Robby the Robot couldn’t hurt people. He was their servant.
What happened? Why are we now afraid of the robots? Are they really out to destroy humankind?
Much of the technophobic media today suggests, machines will destroy our jobs, our economic security and even our very lives.
This is not to suggest that evil outcomes are impossible with Artificial Intelligence (AI). Technology can do good and harm in equal proportions. The outcome of AI depends on its creators and their ability to program appropriately useful, not harmful applications. Just like Robby.
However, the alarm being sounded in many quadrants today suggests the inevitability of significant economic harm which will necessarily result from technology advances. Our jobs are in jeopardy. The future of technology will destroy the ability of humans to support themselves and provide a meaningful lifestyle for themselves and their families. Those are the alarms being sounded by the skeptics.
Is that possible? Of course it is.
Is it probable? That depends.
A similar alarm was sounded at the start of the machine age. In fact, the steam engine disrupted numerous industry sectors. There are few buggy whip makers today. The industry which supported the equine economy has drastically shrunk to almost nothing.
However, we tend to forget that the humans who were skilled in supporting an economy built on the horse, learned new skills. Horse brushers became mechanics. Horse feeders became engineers. Horse breeders became manufacturing managers.
The net effect of this disruptive technology? A ten fold increase in the standard of living for those who adjusted to a new economy. Of course, there was no economic improvement for those content to wither on the vine clinging to the belief that buggy whip making would someday return in resurgent fashion.
What does ancient history have to do with the digital age?
As reported in this space previously, Richard Susskind in Tomorow’s Lawyers predicts that lawyers will acquire new skills and become vital providers in the new economy as legal project mangers, legal system analysts and engineers. That is no longer a prediction. That is the current reality. . . for those willing to adapt.
The vital question is whether workers in our current linear economy, which is rapidly being replaced by the exponential digital economy, will chose to improve their economic standing by adapting and thriving. No less important is adaptation for taxi drivers (disrupted by Uber), hotel workers (disrupted by Airbnb) or lawyers (disrupted by legal tech).
The warning “danger, danger” should only be sounded when lives and livelihoods are truly in jeopardy. In contrast, the opportunity to thrive is being realized by those willing to adjust to a rapidly changing economy. The only danger is for those who refuse to change their outdated business models and learn skills to conform to their market’s legitimate expectations. Lawyers, taxi drivers and hotel operators alike.
Relying on another ancient memory, recall the mystical lyrics to the Eagles classic “Hotel California“. A weary traveler is enticed into “such a lovely place” by a Siren song. He cautions himself, “This could be Heaven or this could be Hell.” Nonetheless, enter he does and hears the Siren warn, “We are all just prisoners here, of our own device.” Realizing the appeal of the Hotel California is a terminal trap of comfort and pleasure alone, the traveler runs to the door by which he entered in order to escape. Stopped by the doorman, the traveler is informed, “Relax, ” said the night man, “We are programmed to receive. You can check-out any time you like, But you can never leave!” When we program ourselves to only receive (rather than give as well), we can never leave our hotel of comfort and pleasure.
If we choose the allure of the status quo because its comfort is more attractive than the “pain of change”, we choose obsolescence.
We make a choice to remain obsolete or to adjust. What’s your choice?
Beware the Hotel California. “Danger, danger!”