Dangers of Automation

India Flinchum, Columnist

The workplace is becoming increasingly automated and it would be an understatement to say that I am scared. Each time a new article crops up in my Newsfeed about a robot with artificial intelligence, I shiver.

My anxiety peaked when I read that Saudi Arabia became the first country to grant citizenship to a robot named Sophia, on October 25. I felt a heaviness in my heart and the consequential plummet of hope.

Days later, I watched a video of Sophia being interviewed by one of her creators in class. I was shocked when the interviewer said, “We’re designing these robots to serve in healthcare, therapy, education and customer service occupations,” because right then, I realized that AI is no longer the voice-powered personal assistant I hear when I say “Hey Siri” or the self-driving vehicle rambling down my street back home. AI is taking human form and shape, learning to occupy the roles in society that, until today, were founded on compassion, empathy and human understanding.

It seems fairly reasonable to me that AI is permeating workplaces where precision and efficiency are key and where automation is already prevalent. Medical diagnosis, computer programming and online/telephone services make use of artificial intelligence in a constructive manner.

I highly disagree, however, with the use of robots in public service and human welfare industries, which depend on the authenticity of human relationships. I don’t want to imagine a world in which a child suffering from depression is forced to talk to a robot about his feelings. Counseling professions are rooted in a therapist’s ability to empathize with the client through shared experience–I highly doubt a robot will ever experience a divorce.

Some may argue that a robot could be programmed to respond to human emotions, but I argue that having a predetermined response defeats the purpose of legitimate emotional exchange.

Emotions are haphazard, occurring randomly under the influence of a certain stimuli; they aren’t always easy to control. Emotions affect us all the time, but hit hardest during crisis situations when all we want is tight hug and the promise of a listening ear.

Robots cannot take the places of teachers, either. Teachers inspire and motivate students through their humanity, in part because they’ve experienced life and have the authority to pass down meaningful lessons and applicable advice. Could a robot affect a student in the same way that a teacher could? I find it highly unlikely. We’re used to hearing the age-old saying that “our teachers live at school,” and in Kindergarten, we hardly believe that our teachers are real people who grocery shop and go for runs. I’d assume that automating the classroom and substituting robots as teachers wouldn’t help the nervous schoolchild see his teacher as a human and confidant.