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In a Robot Future, Humans Are Still Stars, Technophiles Say


FILE - Visitors look at an undersea exploration robot during a drone show at the BEXCO Exhibition Hall in the southeastern port city of Busan, Jan. 19, 2017.

From lasers that cut denim at a factory, to drones that irrigate crops, it’s not a new story that machines are doing more work than ever. But people have long feared that robots are coming for their jobs, so technology evangelists now are calling on their peers to build a future in which the impact on human is lessened.

Tim O’Reilly, the founder of O’Reilly Media, a technology consulting company, thinks the solution is a “hybrid,” mixing humans and machines. He sees that happening already. O’Reilly says most software, for example, is actually a service that depends on human beings in the background to keep it updated and running.

This could be a paradigm shift for Silicon Valley acolytes. Out with the old: a reputedly cold, relentless push for efficiency through algorithms and automation, no matter the consequences for the working class. In with the new: innovation with a human face.

“It’s so important that we have to think about not using technology to replace people -- but to augment them, to do something that was previously impossible,” O’Reilly said last week in Ho Chi Minh City at Apricot, an annual summit organized by the Asia and Pacific Internet Association and APNIC, the regional registry for domain names.

With more skills, people can work alongside robots. Lyft and Uber rely on software that’s intended to make drivers more productive. They’re not completely different from airplanes, which are flown mostly by computers, but there might never be a day when passengers feel comfortable flying without at least one human at the helm.

FILE - An Uber driverless car is displayed in a garage in San Francisco, Dec. 13, 2016. Uber announced Dec. 22, 2016, it is moving its self-driving cars to Arizona.
FILE - An Uber driverless car is displayed in a garage in San Francisco, Dec. 13, 2016. Uber announced Dec. 22, 2016, it is moving its self-driving cars to Arizona.

Jonathan Brewer, a trainer at the nonprofit Network Startup Resource Center, believes the next stage of development should improve on the one before it, when the exploding numbers of factories and machines left so many people with undrinkable water and unbreathable air. Now, he said, technophiles must consider how their inventions help people.

At an Apricot workshop, Brewer described sensors that alert residents an hour before a mudslide will hit, for example, and other “life-saving devices that cost very, very little money.”He says there doesn’t seem much point in having droids to clear tables and dig up copper ore if humans aren’t in a position to use the results of their labor.

O’Reilly illustrated the hybrid approach with the so-called Mechanical Turk. Not Amazon’s tool to outsource small tasks, but the 18th-century machine that seemed to beat humans at chess. In fact, there was a man inside all along, and that is the point. Looking out over an audience of programmers, engineers, and other operators building the internet, O’Reilly compared them to the Mechanical Turk: The world needs workers powered by blood, not just those powered by batteries.

“All of you, in some sense, are inside the internet. You go away, it stops working,” he said. “It's not like a piece of software in a PC era where if you had a copy of Microsoft Windows running on your personal computer, it would keep running without the original programmers. Almost all of the software we depend on today is a service that depends on the work of people like you.”

There may be some wishful thinking, too, in technologists' optimism that humans will thrive in the robot future. In 2015, consulting firm McKinsey projected that automation could eliminate 45 percent of today's occupations. That's why more people in the technology sector are warming to the idea of a universal basic income, which shares the benefits of innovation by giving each citizen a small monthly check.

But Brewer holds out hope in cooperation between people and machines. Many advancements don't just make lives easier, such as thermostats that adjust the temperature to a dweller's liking. He said there is technology, for example, that lets city employees know when street lights go out, or trash cans are full, so they don't have to drive around checking manually, which many local governments do. But once the notice is sent, a human still needs to respond and ensure services are delivered.

For technology, conference-goers said, early adopters first embraced the inexorable, unsympathetic march of change as an indisputable benefit. But in this next phase, people are rethinking disruption, or at least wondering how to soften the blow on humans.

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