Rosie, I’m Letting You Go

August 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

I saw an opinion piece a few days ago in The New York Times about robots. The column by Thomas L. Friedman predicts that advances in robotics will launch an economic boom in the near future. Friedman posits that the field of robotics will effect this boom by increasing productivity and creating jobs. He likens this leap to previous advancements and innovations of the past century: the automobile, the personal computer.

The particular advancement which fuels Friedman’s reveries is a small, programmable machine produced by a Boston firm. Unlike specialized machines which repeat a task endlessly on a factory floor, this robot can be set to perform many tasks. The breadth of potential applications then is very wide. Therein lies the source of Friedman’s hope.

I’m not totally convinced. It seems to be that, more often than not, people that make these technological timetables are like bad hostesses. They lowball their projections. I have a distinct memory- this is one of those bizarre details that stays very clear in the mind for no particular reason – of watching a program on the Discovery channel when I was very young, maybe nine or ten. It was about an entrepreneur who was developing a flying car. He even had a prototype, a gleaming futuristic pod. The announcer relayed the entrepreneur’s expectations: the aircraft/car might be available just a few years hence. Obviously this venture never took off. Like the generation before me who who grew up on the Jetsons, I remain disappointed, firmly grounded. The skies are clear.

On the other hand, there is Google’s mind-boggling Project Glass. This a piece of eyewear that gives the wearer a heads up display, camera, map, weather, everything…. It’s a startling fulfillment of a premise from a sci-fi novel of my young adult reading years: M.T. Anderson’s Feed. In Feed everyone has a computer installed in their brains. They are conscious, but they can constantly access all sorts of content. Here’s the spooky part: their movements and interest are constantly being profiled. While Project Glass is exciting, it’s also a bit unnerving as well when you think that Google, a company whose value is predicated in large part on their ability to harvest and process information from its users, would have access to loads of private, sensitive material from whoever donned a pair of Google Glass(es).

To cap this meandering post, I would say that I am wary of developments in technology. I find them tremendously exciting, but I harbor a healthy amount of skepticism. This wariness ultimately is not for machines themselves. I don’t fear the cliched uprisings of The Matrix or A.I. I am more concerned however, about the way we will employ technology. Is this fear justified? Maybe, it is. Maybe it isn’t. Maybe we should ask Alfred Nobel.

Op-Ed Piece referenced above: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/26/opinion/sunday/i-made-the-robot-do-it.html?_r=1

Project Glass: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9c6W4CCU9M4

-Will Tarnell

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