Counselor Commentary: Robot Takeover?

It’s true. Upon first hearing about the adorable hitchhiking robot HitchBOT getting beheaded in Philadelphia, a tiny part of me cheered. “Take that, you lousy little tin man.”

Honestly, it was a new feeling. Growing up, Rosie the robot maid from The Jetsons and Will Robinson’s robot pal from Lost in Space looked like enviable help-mates. They were smart, friendly and, most important, benign. And who didn’t love R2D2? It wasn’t until Arnold Schwarzenegger’s robot assassin hit the scene that the flip side of all that intelligent metal came to light – and, frankly, scared me straight.

It’s past time everyone saw it this way. If you need convincing, take a look at this video of the 6-foot-2, 330-pound humanoid robot Google recently unveiled. The International Federation of Robotics says companies in the automotive, chemical, rubber, plastics and food industries are buying more industrial robots than ever before, with about 70% of robot sales taking place in Japan, China, the U.S., Korea and Germany. Yes, manufacturing plants and warehouses – like those in the promotional products market, too – are beginning to be run by robots.

Car-making robots may pose minimal threat to us flesh-and-blood types in the short run, but that can change quicker than you can say “I’ll be back.” We progressed from ATMs replacing bank clerks to driverless cars and AI assistants scheduling meetings in a very short time. Sure, smart robots will almost certainly make stunning contributions to science and medicine faster than a human possibly could, saving an untold number of lives. But while robotics is still in its Wild, Wild West phase, the legal and moral implications that loom ahead should be considered.

When robots inevitably go bad, there will be a whole host of potential litigants, from programmers and data providers to factory owners and operators. Who will pay when a still largely unregulated drone gets sucked into an airplane engine, causing a crash? Who will be responsible when a robot assistant goes from typing on a computer to throwing one through a co-worker’s head? And if a robot doctor accidentally kills a patient on the operating table, who do you sue?

We must also confront coming shifts in the corporate landscape. In his new book, Rise of the Robots, Silicon Valley executive Martin Ford explores the transition from Mad Men to Metal Men, as robots march toward white-collar jobs as fast as they moved on manufacturing. Major magazines like Forbes are already spitting out computer-generated news stories. And, law firms are already realizing huge cost savings by letting computers draft legal briefs once written by junior staffers. Is it only a matter of time before robots can walk clients through a promotional campaign, suggest products based on data, and fulfill orders?

A stretch? Don’t be so sure. It was only a few years ago that people wouldn’t have believed the breadth with which robots can operate manufacturing facilities today. We humans should act now – while we still can. We’re already verging on a not-so-distant future when robots go beyond programmability and start to think for themselves. Sure, at first they’ll be as harmless as HitchBOT. But soon, chitchat by the water cooler will be replaced by the toneless voice of the next generation of HAL the computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey.