The rise of the robotsA dad's perspective on robots and our fear of new technology

FLINT, Michigan -- If I believe the headlines, my two teenage boys are part of a revolution that will displace thousands, if not millions, of jobs.

Alex, 13, is a robot programmer. Ian, 15, is a robot builder. They—along with thousands of other children, from first grade playing with LEGO robot kits to high school building washing machine size robots—are part of this robot revolution.

OK, I may be overstating their importance a wee bit, but there is a rising chorus in the mainstream media about how robots and artificial intelligence threaten to displace human workers in many parts of the economy. I wonder what role my sons will play in this revolution.

CNN posted this ominous opinion piece on Sunday, something bright and cheery to read while enjoying your coffee and hot cross buns on Easter morning: The robot scabs are coming to take your jobs

Then there is Bill Gates’ pronouncement earlier this year that we should tax robots that take human jobs: Bill Gates proposes a robot tax

Even Scott Adams of Dilbert fame took a stab at the robot revolution by introducing a robot coworker with often hilarious results: Dilbert’s robot coworker

We’ve been here before. Every time a technology is introduced—looms, steam engines, gasoline-powered cars, calculators, computers, robots, and artificial intelligence—there is a hue and cry that our society and economy teeter on the brink of disaster. Jobs will be lost. Wages will plummet. Men, women, and children will be kicked to the curb by our new technological overlords, forced to grovel for food and work.

This time, however, the doomsayers claim that our technological creations are on the cusp of equaling and, quite possibly, exceeding us as humans. Robots doing surgery. Robots in warehousing, packaging and production. Robots comforting the sick and elderly.

As with the introduction or evolution of any technology there are social, economic, political and environmental ramifications. 

For instance, the advent of the steam locomotive upset the balance in Europe and then the United States, quickly and cheaply transporting people and goods to once remote towns and villages. More than a century ago, the horseless carriage upset the balance, displacing the work of horses and drivers for the convenience of a motor and passengers who controlled which way the vehicle travelled.

More than 200 years ago, a group of English textile workers took hammers to their looms in protest of the machines that were taking their jobs. At least that is what we have come to learn as the story of the Luddites has come to represent opposition to new technology. 

Interesting enough, the Luddites were not altogether opposed to the loom technology, which wasn’t necessarily new at the time. Rather, they were fighting for better wages and working conditions, as well as what they considered were dishonest applications and uses of technology. Destroying the looms was a convenient way to hit the mill owners where it hurt the most; their pocketbooks. 

To learn more about the Luddites, check out this article from the March 2011 Smithsonian magazine: What the Luddites really fought against

What’s often overlooked in these revolutions is how people have adapted to the technological changes around them, using ingenuity and creativity to leverage the technologies to improve and expand society for the better. That’s not to say, people haven’t co-opted technological breakthroughs for evil purposes, or that our technological creations haven’t polluted or destroyed the environment. 

If we are to embrace new technologies, we also must share the responsibility of ensuring they are used for the betterment of society, not as a means to destroy or replace humanity.

So, where do we begin? How do we lessen people’s fear of technology? How do we ensure technology will be used for more noble purposes?

Our children.

Several years ago, I started coaching a robotics team at our local elementary school. A friend started the team and we were soon “all in” because we saw it as a great way to get our sons on the path to being engineers.

I was right and wrong. 

A little over a year into the program—FIRST LEGO League—I realized there was more to robotics than just creating something that did your bidding. FIRST preached the need for Core Values. The terms Gracious Professionalism and Coopetition instilled an ethical and moral base for children and adults, alike. 

Instead of looking at the robotics team as a fast track to engineering careers—that’s still an important element of the program—I began to see it as a way to prepare the children for life.

In a robotics program, children are doing more than learning how to code, build robots and compete against each other to win tournaments and other accolades. They are learning how to work as a team, solve problems and better understand how they can improve the world in which they live. FIRST created a great video about the program: This is not a robot

My boys are part of this revolution. Alex and Ian grew up in FIRST LEGO League. Alex is now programming robots for his middle school’s VEX Robotics teams. Ian helped build his high school’s FIRST Robotics team robot. Both will now compete with their teams for world championships, but I hope the experiences they gain will help them see their creations, not as job killers, but as tools to improve our society.

But there is growing interest among the media and critics to link these youth-based programs with the impending demise of jobs and wages. I have spoken to some people who fear that our youth will one day create the perfect robot that will kick honest-working laborers and professionals to the curb.

I don’t want—nor do I expect—my sons to appropriate the robot revolution for that purpose. I hope that through their upbringing at home and involvement in robotics programs like FIRST and VEX they will come to appreciate their role and responsibility in designing, building and programming the robots of tomorrow.

This is a guest column by Tom Wickham, a former journalist who now works as a public relations specialist in the automotive industry. He's also a proud Carman-Ainsworth robotics dad, who is headed this month to both the FIRST and VEX Robotics international championships.