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Of Robots and Men July 23, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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The title is, of course, not intended to be sexist, but instead modeled loosely after the John Steinbeck novella Of Mice and Men.  There may in fact be some parallels between that story, which many of us read in public school, and the question of whether robots are becoming more human-like.  Certainly the recent announcement by the European Union that it had drafted a “bill of rights” for robots as potential cyber-citizens leads some credence to this notion.

Or in the case of this article, whether humans are becoming more robot-like.  Yes, we sometimes do things robotically, and our devices are making us more consistent (read: predictable) in our response to stimuli.  In particular, the article notes that we have opened to door to almost complete objective surveillance, rather than thought and reflection.  We record, not think.

I am unsympathetic; we have opted for surveillance, by checking into the Hotel Facebook (yes, “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave”). I have declined that particular stay, but I am certainly potentially under surveillance through CCTV cameras in public places, license plate cameras on police cruisers, and my own mobile phone, of course.

But trying to make humans into robots has a long history in management and engineering. Frederick Taylor, he of the scientific management, created the mass production system that required thousands of workers, each doing a tiny fraction of an entire process required in order to assemble a complex machine like an automobile.  His work made human workers into the very definition of modern robots.

And the field of industrial engineering still contains coursework and careers in what is euphemistically called “time and motion studies.” What is that, you ask.  As an extension of Taylor’s scientific management, time and motion studies purport to analyze manual work in order to determine how to accomplish a specified task with the least amount of time and, well motion (despite its deep grounding in industrial engineering practice, I’m afraid my skepticism is showing).  After all, if we can engineer devices, certainly we can do the same with people (sarcasm intended).

Yet time and motion studies, and Taylor’s scientific method are explicitly geared toward repeating the same limited movements over and over again, perhaps to save a fraction of a second on each assembly. Certainly those fractions added up over time, but they also explicitly prohibited the workers themselves from experimenting to determine improvements in the process as a whole.  When we treat people like robots, they become robots.  Surprise!

I am reminded of a story from my studies in psychology, in which pigeons were trained to sort pharmaceuticals based on the color of the pills. Fortunately, the ASPCA came to their rescue, claiming animal cruelty.  The task was ultimately returned to humans, for whom apparently it did not represent cruelty.

Yes, actively turning humans into robots has a long history in engineering and management. To be fair, I think it is mostly well-meant, but incredibly demeaning and ultimately counterproductive.  But I don’t think there is any surprise here.

Those of you who have read me know that I am a runner. That is a relatively recent development; it was only the acquisition of a Fitbit that put me on the path to consistency in workouts.  I am quantitatively motivated, and the numbers become a sort of game with me.  But I don’t allow them to take over my life, as apparently we are letting happen to many, many others.

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