Reports of robot abuse and anti-robot sentiments make headlines, but are such attitudes wide spread? In this episode, Dr. Wanda Curlee talks to APU business professor Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth about some of the factors contributing to anti-robot sentiments. Learn how people from different cultural backgrounds view AI-based technology and how acceptance may be largely dependent on age and socioeconomic factors.
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Dr. Wanda Curlee: Welcome to the podcast. I’m your host, Wanda Curlee. Today we are going to be chatting about the anti-robot sentiment that is occurring. My guest is Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth, who is a professor of logistics, supply chain and reverse logistics courses at American Public University. He has many years of experience writing about, lecturing, and talking about improvements that AI can bring us to education and other areas such as crises, technology innovations and disasters. Oliver, welcome back and thank you for joining me.
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Thank you Wanda. This is a good topic, especially today. Even today’s newspaper has got several articles about pro and against robots, so I’m looking forward to talking to you and answering the questions you have.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: Great. You have been following how robots are helping industry and people, especially robots with artificial intelligence. Please give us a little overview of what robots are doing for us today.
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: AI is really becoming a good for many human jobs, okay? Human jobs, all right? AI is used for diagnosing diseases. It translates languages very easy. All the AI stuff you have on your computer, you don’t know it’s AI, but it’s translating your language when you want to go from one language to another. It does a lot of customer service. Some of it is kind of behind the scenes. And it’s really changing all the time, but it does still raise some reasonable fears that AI will ultimately replace some human workers throughout our economy.
But it’s not really inevitable, but it’s happening. Really never before have our digital tools been really as responsive as AI has. AI has radically really changed how work is done and does it, but the technology is still evolving and still AI is continuing to be targeted toward different kinds of efficiencies in the workplace and other activities. It is replacing human jobs, Wanda.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yeah. That’s a concern for many. Do you see with education and helping employees understand how they can use AI would help them not lose their jobs?
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: AI is not going to help you understand how to not lose your job. I’ve got a headline from the newspaper and it talks about robots are losing their jobs. Robots are being fired. Some of the robots are being fired.
It appears that Walmart had some 17-foot tall machines that would go pick your products out. You know, you want to order something online, you go order it, and it’ll go get it and bring it to you, but the customer, the executives, forgot to ask the customer what they wanted. They were calling in and the robots were there inside the store with your package, so, Wanda, you could go in and use your credit card and get your stuff out, but you didn’t want to go in. You wanted to stay in your car and have someone bring it out to your car. So these robots were being fired because the customer is like, “I’m not going to go inside and do that.”
So that’s happening, but then you get places like Amazon. Now Amazon has 50 different warehouses or distribution centers and they’re building another one in Henrico, Richmond, Virginia, right now. They’ll have a thousand employees, but they’re going to have a couple of thousand robots too.
So there’s a lot of investment going on as robots are being fired. There’s a lot of things going on like that. It’s kind of interesting, and it’s kind of a pro and con in what’s going on. It is kind of fun to see what’s happening.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yeah, it is. So, do you see a new generation of Luddites happening today because of robots? And you may want to explain what Luddites is for some of our listeners that may not understand that term.
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: I do think that a new generation of Luddites is happening, maybe not as powerful as it was back in the 19th century. But the Luddites is a term that happened during the first generation of workers that were really experiencing a loss of their jobs due to automation. We didn’t call it artificial intelligence back then. It was just automation, automation like cars that replaced horses in our generation, or not my generation, my grandparents’ generation.
But Luddites came around about the 1800s. It was the textile industry in the United Kingdom, over there in England. There was a very economic powerhouse. These people were work from their homes. They were weavers making stockings. They had some kind of frame to make your stockings. They had cotton spinners who were creating yarn, but the big job was croppers, C-R-O-P-P-E-R-S, croppers.
They were these huge men, strong men, who would take these large sheets of woven wool fabric, trimming the surfaces off, the rough surfaces, because you need the wool to be nice and smooth for clothing.
These workers had a lot of great control over how they worked. They only worked two or three days a week, but they got paid three times more than anybody else doing any other job, so they were really, it’s a prestigious job to be a croopper, working this business. They were well paid off.
Then all of a sudden the textile machines came in that were going to replace them. They had these big machines, technology that replaced them, and they got very upset because all of a sudden these people who were making a lot of money lost their jobs. The machines started replacing these. Instead of a hundred workers working from home making a lot of money, they were thrown out of work because in a factory built with machines and wheels and pulleys and things the looms could replace what the humans were doing on their weaving machines the machines were doing.
They had machines that would slide up and down the wool and pick off the rough surfaces. You didn’t need that man, that worker doing that anymore, so he lost his job. That was one of the first big areas where technology really replaced a human.
They had a fight. They tried to burn the factory down. They broke up machinery. It was a huge outcry, because a lot of people in the United Kingdom were working from home doing this work, and it was really a huge setback by this technology. And of course the owners of the business, they were making a fortune, because all of a sudden they were turning out good, smooth wool faster than the humans could, so it makes business sense.
Those Luddites, they’re still here today I believe. I do believe that we’re having some of that happening. People will lose their jobs. Cab drivers will lose their jobs. We have 18-wheelers now, not a lot them, there’s some on the road. Of course there may be a human sitting behind the wheel just in case. I don’t know what they’re going to be doing sitting there on the road for 12 hours a day while the thing drives from California to New York or something, but you can see things happening.
There are people who are going to be losing their jobs, routine tasks, you pick up something and put it together. Amazon knows about this, and that’s why Amazon has thousands of robots in their stores picking up products and moving them around. They still hire humans. I know the human has to pick up a box and put it in another box. You can see these jobs going away and people will be upset.
I do believe there’s a thing of Luddites happening, but will they fight it? I don’t think they’ll really fight it like they did back in the 1900s.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: Okay. So going back to that, I read several articles and one of them suggested that the anti-robot sentiment is not really against the robot. It is against the AI development and its control. What are your thoughts on that? Do you think it’s the AI, or is it just the robot in general?
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: In Austin, Texas I remember reading somewhere there was a whole group saying, “I say robot, you say nobot.” They were having signs like, “Stop the robots” outside. The AI is really no more than just another different level of technology. We go back to, like I said, we used to have a country here where you had horses and mules moving products, slowly. Horse drawn carts, then you had automobiles that came eventually, decades later, and trucks, and you could bring in a lot of products.
We didn’t have a lot of trains. Trains were technology. Then airplanes came along a hundred years ago and were moving cargo. Look at the ships. Cargo used to be moved by hand, bags of potatoes and grain, and now robots do it and they’re in containers and ships full of thousands of containers all being run by machines. Maybe we won’t call it AI, but it is machine technology.
AI is I think becoming kind of a generic term for different kinds of technology. It’s still machine technology, but the key thing I think about AI is that it’s replacing what you and I are doing right now, thinking, making a decision, asking a question and getting an answer. A loom that makes wool won’t give you an answer, but if you, Wanda, want to play chess, you can turn on your computer and play the computer.
You can get a chess board that’s never played chess before and the AI software will learn as you beat it. It knows the rules of movement, and you’ll beat the heck out of it for a couple of rounds, but after a couple of rounds you won’t beat that chess game. The chess board will beat you.
So this thinking, this critical thinking aspect, is part of what AI is changing in our landscape. It’s more than just picking a box out of a cupboard and moving it down the warehouse or moving it to the front of your grocery store for you to pick up and go home.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: So I read another article and it reported that people are throwing eggs at the Google self-driving vehicles. And in fact in one of them the window was rolled down and that somebody threw an ice cream cone at the driver that was behind it. So do you see employees sabotaging robots in the future?
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: I do. I actually do. I remember reading an article also about United Kingdom workers, it seems a lot of activity is coming from the United Kingdom, where they were actually sabotaging and assaulting the workplace robots. They were assaulting them in an attempt to stop them from taking over their jobs. They’re doing that.
It’s not just science fiction. AI is not necessarily going to overthrow the human race overnight, but it could overthrow you and your job overnight. There was one article I read somewhere about some manual workers, people who did things by manual, they were trying in different ways to stop the robots trying to do something. They were doing something that would confuse the robot.
There was one case I think I remember reading about I call it robot abuse, sabotaging, assaulting, but robot abuse. That’s a neat term that was published somewhere in a United States paper. But there was some security robots that were running around a company and they found a couple of those security robots drowned, okay? They were drowned. It was Washington, DC, I remember.
There was an office block fountain, you know those big fountains people have, and somehow the robots wound up inside the fountain drowned, okay? Now the company that owned it they said, “Oh, the robot slipped.” But when you look at the height of the fountain, well that robot didn’t slip over a two foot concrete wall. Somebody picked it up and dropped it inside.
There’s another one I think in San Francisco. They had some delivery robots. People were stealing the robots. I think there was one place, grocery store type place in Scotland, I think. The robot in the grocery store sounded an alarm when people wanted pork, pork samples. They were looking at pork samples and they’d pick up the pork samples and they were like, “Hey, you can’t do that. Stop.” It was like a thief or something. For some reason it got misdirected that if you pick up the bite you’re a thief or something.
I imagine we’ll see a whole bunch of robots that’ll be stolen or abused and, well, you know, college kids might do some pranks on some of them, or high school. If you’re living at home and it’s summer and you see a robot coming down the sidewalk delivering a package to somebody, oh, golly gee, I can’t see an adult doing it because they’re going to lose their job. The post office person may not do it because the mail is being delivered by a robot, but I could see a teenager saying, “Hey, let’s have some fun with this guy.”
Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yeah, I can see that. I can see that as well. Oliver, does academia play a role in educating employees and future generations to understand the power of robots and AI-enabled robots?
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Oh, now that’s a good question, especially being a college professor here, but artificial intelligence really, well, it’s rapidly transforming and improving the way that industry is doing things, like healthcare and banking and energy and retail operations.
The one place I think that’s really got the best application and it’s doing it is education. There are many educational opportunities and challenges with the introduction of AI in education. There are things you have to worry about. There’s things like artificial intelligence, e-learning, learning machines, the internet of things, technology, can replace the teacher too.
I see on my web all the time, every day I’m getting information on email from MIT and other places, other universities, not just MIT, that we’re offering an artificial intelligence course for a week on how to do your job better, or how to do this research with AI, or there’s actually college degrees you can get in AI, machine learning on how the machines will improve the future, improve your current future, so AI is becoming very important as a topic.
Also we are seeing professors look at the courses they’re teaching, if they’re teaching a course in retail management or something else, they are now adding how can AI help teach this student what to do in their job?
Because now you go to a company, you need to use AI. Even going to DMV, the Department of Motor Vehicles, to get your license, the worker there uses AI to process data on you and understand what’s going on and help fill out forms, so AI is being a used a lot. So we need to educate people not only for a certificate to do your job, but a college degree to understand where it’s coming from. So I see education is really an interesting, not a dilemma, it’s an interesting area of exploring.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: I can see maybe as technology progresses there might be holograms as well, instead of a robot it’s a hologram that actually can come out and talk to the student outside. But does it seem that this anti-robot backlash is due to fear of the unknown, such as AI making the wrong decision or a robot doing something against humans?
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: The answer is yes and the answer is no, okay?
Dr. Wanda Curlee: Because we know AI does make wrong decisions sometimes.
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Well, when does it matter if you make a wrong decision? If I’m going into an AI restaurant and I order a hot dog with mustard, onion and chili and I get my hot dog and it comes out and I didn’t get any mustard on it, oh, golly gee, it didn’t understand what I said. Okay. Well, that’s not so bad. Okay, I can eat it.
But if I’m a surgeon and I ask my AI system to make an incision in the intestines for only one inch or whatever it is, this deep, and then sew this up while I’m doing something else, you want it to be accurate. So I can see where there would be certain areas where people would be concerned with it.
I wouldn’t be concerned about the restaurant giving me a hot dog with no mustard, but as a surgeon I’d be really interested in an AI system that could help me in some things and be very cautious. I can see a lot of people who are not educated in how the AI systems are changing.
We have a different age group here. People live to 100 years of age. We might see that seniors, whatever a senior is, let’s say 65 and older, people 65 and older, or maybe 70 or 80, might be very suspicious of technology and AI. Whereas people in their 20s and 30s would welcome it. It’s like wow, give me more.
I’ve got a great-grandson, I’m one of the seniors, I got a great-grandson who was basically, in the crib he had an iPhone with him. He had this little device and he’d push it, just touch it, and it had these little pictures on it, little cartoony things and little sounds, and he has fun. Instead of a bottle and a rattle he’s got a little iPhone, a little computer to play with. So it’s going to be amazing to see how this person is raised, like my children were raised, with computer technology.
I think there’s going to be an age difference. There could be a cultural difference too. We may find that people in Finland may approach the use of AI and the impact of AI on their business and their world differently than Americans. If you’ve been to Finland, people are different and they approach technology a little bit differently maybe than we do here in America. They’re more open. We’re not as open.
It’ll be interesting, or in Africa, or in Russia or Mexico. It’ll be interesting to see, so I think these questions are really good and I think we’ll have the answer yes and no. It depends on where you are and how old you are, or the group you’re looking at. It could be different groups of people.
Talk to football players, versus K-12 schoolteachers, versus people who work in Walmart grocery store as baggers, or the managers of a Walmart store. It depends on the category of persons and what their job is and how the technology is helping them or maybe hurting them.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: Interesting. In your opinion, how do we help employees, and when I use the kind of royal of academics and managers and supervisors and senior leadership, how do we help employees and others that deal with robots to understand that robots, and the AI-enabled robots, are adjunct to let the individual do more value-add tasks?
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: That’s a tough question. Thank you very much for a tough question there. Well, look at again employees are a piece of data, all right? Look at the data on it. The employees are different ages. If you’re as teenager, if you’re 20 or 30, if you’re educated, if you have a college degree or a high school degree, the type of job you get might be different. If I’m hired to be in an office somewhere as an employee managing a bunch of data behind a computer screen, I might not worry too much about AI helping me analyze the data.
But if I’m working in a retail store and I see a robot out collecting the orders, I talk to somebody on the phone and they say, “I want to buy these 10 things,” and I punch a button an those 10 things go to an automated system, and I say, “Thank you very much for your order,” and then a robot does all the work and comes up when the person is ready and it’s there. I’m being assisted by that robot.
I still think that it’s going to be difficult to convince everybody from say 18 years old to whatever the working age is, 75, 85 years old, 95 years old. I think there will be an age characterization that will help impact what people will accept.
I do believe that’s a good question and I don’t believe there’s a simple answer. I do believe you have to again go back to the categorization of the people in terms of age, education, maybe locality. I’m a southern. I’m from North Carolina, and I’ve met people from Florida and South Carolina and New York and New England and Canada and Alaska and the mid-west, and Kansas, I worked in Kansas, North Dakota.
I’m dealing with people from North Dakota right now on another project, and I mean people that have never left North Dakota since the 1800s when they got there, and they have a different view toward technology. They like their handheld farm equipment, okay? They know how to do things by hand and they don’t need no silly machine to tell them how to do something. They still grind their meat by a meat grinder by hand.
It is an interesting question, and I think it’s one we need to just keep thinking about, and I think you need to ask it by the group that your dealing with, the group of people you’re dealing with, okay?
Dr. Wanda Curlee: That makes a lot of sense. So as the younger generations mature, I have millennials and I have Gen Xers as kids. And, of course, I have young grandchildren that are four and five years old, and when they enter the workforce do you eventually see the anti-robot sentiment waning?
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: I do, because I think the anti-robot sentiment will retire with us humans who reach an age of retirement. I do believe once you’ve worked your 30 years and you’re getting ready to leave the newspaper business or the retail grocery business, I believe as you age out the anti-robot sentiment will wane. It will go away.
There may be a few diehards, but I cannot imagine it with the new generation. I do believe that it will go away. The reason I say this is because I’m old enough to remember the age of the cellphone. I remember when the cellphone came in during the age of my children, and they were raised with a cellphone in their hands, so it’s common practice.
And the cellphone, since I work in the computer industry from early age, when the computer was really just a little number cruncher, it was just an adding machine that was digital. And that’s all a computer was, it just added numbers, and nobody thought it would do any more than just add numbers, a lot of them, more than humans could, and look what’s happened there.
But I do believe as you get more used to the technology, AI and robots today, that it would be so commonplace that no one will think what was it like before the iPhone? These 20- and 30-year-olds have no idea of what it was like before the iPhone.
I remember when the telephone in my house was a phone for everybody in the neighborhood. When it rang it rang one time or two times or something, you’d pick it up. Or if you wanted to use the phone to call somebody you pick it up, “Oh, that’s Aunt Mabel talking with Bobby across the street,” and you’d hang up and a half hour later you pick it up and, “Oh God, she’s still talking,” and you hang up. And then you pick it up later, it’s like nobody is talking. Hurry up and dial. I got to dial my aunt over in Goldsboro. I dial and am talking to her, and then I hear the phone pick up and someone else is listening to me talking to my aunt. That’s the way phones used to be, and you didn’t use the phones all the time. But the technology changed. I do believe the technology of AI robots is in the same way of technology.
Now how much time will it take? It takes I think a generation. I think it’ll take like 20 or 30 years, which I think is already there, because the workers in the workplace in their 30s and 40s are so used to robots and AI, I don’t the combat against it from those who are say 35 and younger. That’s Oliver’s opinion. 35 and younger, I think they’ll accept it all.
But 35 and older, they’re the ones who are like I’m losing my job. I’m going to retire in five years. I don’t want to be replaced by this machine. I need my retirement check in five years, so I’m going to break the darn thing. I think there’s an age factor there.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: Oliver, thank you very much for joining me today. It’s a very exciting topic to me on anti-robot backlash. Do you have any last words you would like to leave to our listeners?
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: I’d like to have the listeners continue reading what’s going on in the world today in the newspaper. Like I said, even in today’s newspaper I read that at Walmart the robots are being fired, but then again I turn a page in another section and I see there’s one company investing 30 billion, that’s with a B, $30 billion in robots that are going to help people do their job better.
Oh, and one factor that is improving and increasing robots, COVID-19. This is the year 2021. COVID-19 has killed in the last year and this year over 500,000 people. People have lost their jobs. People are not going to work. So robots have replaced a lot of this human effort, because the owners of those companies need to still make money. And a robot or an AI system, if it can replace a worker, then they’re going to do it. Temporarily, they said, but what I’m seeing so far is it’s not temporarily. The company is making money 24/7. That robot doesn’t need health insurance, it doesn’t need time off for a holiday. All it needs is some oil and grease or something, digital oil and grease. That’s all it needs, so I do see things happening there.
It’s going to be fun to see the anti-robot and the acceptance working side-by-side. That’s the exciting thing. So read the newspaper every day. You’ll find for and against. Thank you very much for this session, by the way. I really enjoy talking about this.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: Thank you Oliver, again, and to our listeners for joining us. We have some exciting podcasts coming up in the area of artificial intelligence, so stay tuned and stay well.