Get Ready For The First Robot President

May 23, 2012
Originally published on May 23, 2012 11:48 am

As many folks know, Bill Clinton was called the First Black President by Toni Morrison in The New Yorker. Barack Obama has been dubbed the First Gay President by Andrew Sullivan in Newsweek and the First Female President by Dana Milbank in The Washington Post.

But no matter which man wins the next election — Obama or presumed challenger Mitt Romney — he may well go down in history as the First Robot President.

This is not because people have found each guy to be robot-like on occasion — though they have.

As far back as 2009, Fox Nation posted a video featuring Obama's never-changing smile and asking, "Is Obama a Robot?"

And Romney is often ribbed about his robotic behavior. For example, Greg Gutfeld of Fox News said that Romney's "flaws are robotic malfunction that prevents him from seeing words beyond their basic utility, like Robby the Robot from Lost in Space, he sees no emotional import in his phrasing, so even when he's right, he sounds wrong."

No. The next humanoid in the White House may be called the First Robot President because he will be reckoning with the increasing influx and influence of robots in our everyday lives.

The Politics Of Robotics

Perhaps you have noticed: Robots are everywhere. They are working on farms and serving us coffee. They are cleaning our rugs and grading students' exams.

We are suddenly surrounded — by dancing droids, soccerbots, robot cars and drones that do all kinds of work for us and watch our every move.

The politics of robotics, however, is a tricky thing.

To support the development of robotics can be viewed as denigrating to the work of humans; robots take jobs from people. On the other hand, to rant against the research and development of robotics could be viewed by voters as shortsighted, unimaginative and Ludditical.

There has never been much political currency in opposing technological change in the U.S., says David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And "generally that's good. Politicians are happy to rail against foreign workers, but they almost never rail against innovation, at least here. Perhaps that's because a lot of the innovation happens in the U.S. So we get the benefits as well as the costs."

But when the day comes that labor-saving robotics are introduced on a large scale "there will be winners and losers," Autor says. "There almost always are with technical advances."

For example, the Luddites — groups of workers in 19th century England who destroyed machines because they threatened people's jobs — were justified in worrying about the impact on the labor force of textile industry innovations such as the "flying shuttle" and "spinning jenny," Autor says. "These technologies very likely reduced their earning power — even as they increased total societal wealth by making more 'stuff' with less work."

If Apple or Wal-Mart suddenly introduced "a $1,000 robot that could clean houses, cut grass, cook meals and chauffeur the kids to school," Autor says, "this would be hugely welfare-improving for people who currently do these tasks themselves or pay others to do them. But it would be devastating to people who make a living doing these tasks."

The problem, he explains, is not one of overall societal wealth but of income distribution. "For most of us, our primary asset is ownership of our labor, which commands a wage in the marketplace that supports a decent standard of living," Autor explains. "If the task that we are most productive at doing suddenly became cheap and abundant because it can be done by low-cost machinery, this would be hugely disruptive."

Labor-saving devices continue to proliferate. In Japan, for instance, the Fanuc Corp. operates a factory in which robots build other robots. It's called "lights out" manufacturing because no lighting is needed in the factory.

Still, Autor points out, the total robotification of labor is a long way off because many simple tasks performed by humans are actually quite complicated for machines.

Innovation Nation

So, how do the candidates feel about robots? During his first term, Obama has shown great ardor for the R2D2 population. He has rallied the Roomba types by launching the National Robotics Initiative that provides up to $70 million in research grants for robotics. "Robots are working for us every day, in countless ways," according to the White House. "At home, at work, and on the battlefield, robots are increasingly lifting the burdens of tasks that are dull, dirty or dangerous. ... But they could do even more."

The post continues: "Robotics can address a broad range of national needs such as advanced manufacturing, logistics, services, transportation, homeland security, defense, medicine, health care, space exploration, environmental monitoring and agriculture."

Through such high-tech programs, Obama was quick to point out during the official announcement, the National Robotics Initiative will "make our businesses more competitive and create new, high-quality manufacturing jobs."

Romney, too, is an outspoken advocate of ingenuity. Though the former Massachusetts governor may not have issued any official statements on the place of robotics in society, he has waxed poetic on the futurific premise — and promise — of labor-saving innovation.

Speaking to an audience of more than 900 technology folks in Northern Virginia in February, Romney regaled the group with a historic tale of American innovation. He spoke of reading At Home by Bill Bryson last summer.

"It's actually kind of a fun book," he said.

Gesturing enthusiastically, Romney told the crowd about Bryson's description of a worldwide expo in London in 1850 when nations were invited to send samples of their accomplishments. "From all over the world came art — art, music and so forth," Romney said. But America "sent over several large crates ... and they put together what was a McCormick Reaper. This is what came from America, all right. This is what we were most proud of."

The McCormick Reaper, Romney said, "was able to do the work of 70 men in agriculture, 70 people could be replaced by one machine. By virtue of that innovation and others like it, agriculture did no longer require the entire population to feed the population. And so people could move to cities, begin the Industrial Age and change the world."

Bryson actually writes that the machine could replace 40 men. But the point is the same: One machine doing the work of many people is a positive step.

And, at another juncture, while speaking to a town hall-style meeting in February, Romney roused the crowd by praising the future-oriented spirit of the American people. "Great entrepreneurs and innovators and thought-leaders," he said, "have made this the greatest nation in the history of the Earth."

He got a standing ovation. He was speaking in Shelby Township, Mich., at the Eagle Manufacturing Co. They make robots.

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