Super Bowl Singularity

Alternate Title: The Iron Giant (No, not Gronkowski)

I’m not a die-hard football fan by any means. I enjoy watching the Patriots play for the same reason most casual New England fans do: they make me feel superior to Jets fans. But as I bit into my fourth taco and there were still no touchdowns on the scoreboard, I started to pay more attention to the commercials. That’s when I noticed a definite theme: robots are taking over.

I’ve been doing a lot of research on robotics for my job leading an innovation team at a big shipping and logistics company. I know about the benefits, limitations, how far we’ve come, and how far we have left to go with regards to advanced robotics. So I definitely noticed when robots were on display early in the game during a Sprint commercial. At the time, I didn’t think much of it – the robots were used in previous Sprint commercials and weren’t the focus of the advertisement. I thought the commercial was cute and wholesome and didn’t think much about the fact that robots were ‘cast’ instead of humans for the roles.

Image result for sprint robot super bowl
Sprint Robots

Fast forward a little bit and I see another commercial for TurboTax, showcasing a ‘bare-bones’ robot (albeit with a slightly creepy child’s face mask) who wants nothing more than to become a live CPA for TurboTax. Unfortunately, he just doesn’t have the emotional depth required to be a CPA (indicating that there are some industries where robots simply can’t replace humans… yet). Seeing a second commercial starring robots wasn’t outrageous, although this commercial was certainly trying a little harder to touch on the theme of robots replacing humans. But the commercial was funny! I laughed and moved on without thinking too much of it.

TurboTax’s Super Bowl ad sought to reassure viewers that a robot couldn’t replace a human accountant.
Creepy RoboChild from TurboTax

Next came an ad from SimpliSafe came on the TV and took the message even farther. In the ad, a man starts his day and is presented with a multitude of fears including garage doors, wheat bread, package thieves, drones, and finally a man at a stadium stating how robots will be able to do your job in five years (while a robot in a baseball hat sitting behind him holds a hot dog). I was surprised at how blunt the message was. “Technology is attacking, listening, ever present, and you should be scared” seemed to be the only statement from the commercial (and I’m still not sure how SimpliSafe protects me from an always-listening Alexa or Google Home).

Image result for simplisafe robot superbowl
SimpliSafe Robot

At this point, I thought the ads couldn’t get more egregious with regards to their messages around robotics. I mean, how could they top an ad with literally all of a man’s technology fears combined into a single 30-second ad? And then I saw it, the Michelob Ultra commercial. In the ad, a robot is outrunning humans on the road, outdriving them on the golf range, out-punching them in the gym, and out-cycling them in a spin studio. Finally, the robot walks past a bar and longingly stares at a group of people enjoying Michelob Ultra. For me, there were two main messages here. The first is that hard work (running, boxing, cycling, etc.) isn’t worth it if you can’t enjoy a nice cold beer with your friends. But the second is that no matter what we do, there will be a robot who can do it better, stronger, faster, and more intelligently. This was the perfect representation of humanity’s biggest fear with regards to robotics: that we will eventually create something that will surpass us.

Michelob Ultra’s Super Bowl commercial shows a humanoid robot outperforming humans at running, golf, and other athletic endeavors, only to stare longingly through the window when people gather for a beer.
Michelob Ultra Robot

And the commercials weren’t even limited to hardware. Robotic (or AI) software was also on display with Amazon’s ‘Not everything makes the cut’ ads for Alexa and the Pringles ‘Sad Alexa’ ad which pokes fun at the device’s longing for a life with meaning (before being told to play Funkytown).  

Robots have been on display here and there in previous Super Bowls. This isn’t the first ad involving robots that I’ve seen. However, this is the first year I’ve seen so many ads that primarily focus on the fear of robots replacing or surpassing humanity. And typically, commercials like these are a sample of what’s on the minds of people today. A few years ago, Super Bowl ads were focused on diversity. It was a comment on social life in the United States at a time when division was rampant due to the issue of immigration. This year, it seems those fears have been somewhat mitigated, and the focus is now on how technology will make us obsolete.

It makes sense. With the rise of automation and autonomy in robots, hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people will lose their jobs to robotics or AI in the coming years. In the US alone, there are 3.5 million truck drivers who would be out of a job if autonomous trucking becomes the norm, and this is only a single occupation. Industries like manufacturing, shipping, and agriculture are on the short list for replacing humans and industries like finance, healthcare, and even customer service positions are not far behind. A McKinsey report produced in 2017 estimated that as many as 800 million people could be replaced by robots by 2030 (which sounds pretty close when you consider that 2030 is only 11 years away).

However, people won’t go down without a fight. Just look at Arizona where people are attacking Waymo cars and you’ll see that this revolution won’t happen quietly. We’re going to need to consider a lot of options for how we’re going to deal with a displaced and disrupted workforce. I’ve been doing a lot of research on this topic, and I’ve come no closer to figuring out any potential solutions. One of the more interesting ones is taxing robots and forms of automation to pay for a form of universal basic income. This idea fascinates me because it solves a few problems. First, it addresses the issue for how we deal with a population lacking skills required by today’s workforce. Second, it addresses how we pay for this solution. Finally, it addresses my biggest problem with AI and automation through robotics: the inequality gap.

Consider this: the first company to create a true general AI can use it to create a better, smarter AI. This can go on for more and more iterations until we’ve created something so vastly powerful and intelligent it makes humans look like monkeys. While this is terrifying in and of itself, consider the fact that this AI may be controlled by Google or IBM. So much power in the hands of so few is even more frightening to me than the idea of this AI being self-contained.

I know that humanity is still years away from achieving these situations. However, I think this is a situation that requires us to put the horse before the cart (and not vice versa). We need to consider the implications of these technologies before we open Pandora’s Box and release something that we can’t put back in, no matter how hard we try.

12 comments

  1. I am a huge fan of Super Bowl ads and I am pleased that you picked up on the use and popularity of brands using robotics and AI to sell and feature their products. This new chapter with robotics potentially becoming a threat to the human workforce is daunting. I believe there will have to be a lot of initiatives and due diligence before these technologies are released on the market for companies and consumers to use. Drastic safety measures have to be taken into consideration. When I think of driverless cars and Uber’s initiative to test these vehicles in specific markets, it quite frankly scares me. As a population, we have to be thoroughly educated before any of these advancements and robotic releases hit the market!

    1. I agree with your concern that technology is moving a lot faster than legislature does. Do you think we’ll ever get to a point where the laws and lawmakers are able to keep up? I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to slow down tech enough to make sure that we can do our ‘due diligence’. For better or worse, I see technology as a runaway train in many regards.

  2. I think you’ll like our class on AI in a few weeks. We’ll get into these issues.

    1. Very excited! Love talking about this topic

  3. Funny how advertisements during sport’s biggest event of the year can be used to steer debates and conversations. Your last sentence tells it all, “We need to consider the implications of these technologies before we open Pandora’s Box and release something that we can’t put back in, no matter how hard we try.” How will these implications be considered? Through thoughtful conversation or by trial and error? And by error, these errors could be catastrophic. With so many other disruptive technologies that lacked regulation and standards, will we get it right with AI? We obviously do not want to over-regulate, but with the capability of AI, it will need to be taken seriously.

    1. You raise a great point with the scale of errors. Many businesses innovate through trial and error, but with certain technologies, the margin of error is much bigger than others. I think that, specifically with AI, we have the potential to create something that disrupts not only a single industry or region, but the entire world in an instant.

  4. Okay so I’m a huge Ted Radio Hour fan and if you think Robots and AI are interesting you have got to listen to this TRH called “Do we need Humans”. https://www.npr.org/2013/02/25/172900833/do-we-need-humans

    It’s honestly so good and it effectively tries to address the concerns about whether robots will take over. It effectively brings you through all of the emotions; depression, fear, understanding and optimism.

    One point that was made that I think contributes to my optimism is that we’ve effectively been here before. Data (ironically) shows us that what’s happening today is effectively the same as what happened during the industrial revolution – aka machines took over our jobs. We survived that by adapting the nature of our work so that machines helped us so that we could do more important tasks. I think we are in the middle of this again – We now have the option to let technology improve our lives not take them over.

    If you have a spare hour, that podcast is one that really changed the way I think about technology advancements !

    1. Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll definitely check it out! One of the most interesting things I consider when I look at AI is the analogy to the industrial revolution with energy. Basically, when people discovered how to use steam to use energy from coal more effectively, everyone believed that the use of coal would diminish. However, the opposite happened and coal usage skyrocketed as people found new uses for it (as it became a more efficient energy source). This is called Jevon’s Paradox (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jevons_paradox) and I think this may be analogous to human labor as AI makes humanity more efficient.

  5. I find it slightly frightening that I didn’t even notice there were so many robots in the Super Bowl ads this year…maybe that’s because I am already so used to them being a part of my life. I got an Echo Show (the new Alexa with the screen and camera; basically a cheaper iPad with a giant speaker attached) for Christmas, and I received concerned comments from many of my friends. “Why did you buy an Alexa with a camera? Now she can watch you too.” For some reason, this thought never even crossed my mind. Maybe that’s because its just a device, and I don’t connect smart devices with “robots.” Once they start moving around and looking like humans…that is where I think I would draw the line.

    1. That’s a great point! Many people don’t consider smart-home devices as robots because they don’t have faces, legs, or wheels. But they talk, they listen, and they react – so how different are they really? I’m very curious about what you use the camera/screen on the Alexa device for. Personally, I only use mine to tell me the weather in the morning, do you find yourself using yours for a lot more?

  6. My friends and I noticed the robotics trend as well! It seemed like every time a commercial came up it was focus on tech/robotics, but more specifically the fear involved. Historically, I feel like robotics and advanced technologies were looked at as something futuristic and out of reach, but now that these innovations are here we are seeing the realities and implications soon to come. It’s a troubling problem, and one that I think will get away from us if we don’t start thinking about these issues. We are advancing so quickly in the AI and machine learning fields that new inventions and applications seem to pop up all the time. There will be a point where we need to address the disruption to the workforce and it’s effect on people’s lives. We are already seeing effects in the manufacturing industries but with almost limitless applications, this technology is scary. I’ve never really thought about the long term solutions to this problem, but I find the robotics tax really interesting. these advances really are going to start changing the face of our society and it’s something that we need to start thinking about. Super Bowl marketers clearly got that impression and are using it to evoke emotions in watchers and sell their products. Great work, I look forward to reading more!

    1. It can definitely be a troubling problem, but I don’t think it’s one without a solution. AI is an extremely disruptive technology and I think we’ll need to examine really disruptive and creative solutions in order to address it. I also think it’s easy for companies to play on people’s fears of being replaced by automation and robotics, but there’s a lot of opportunities for bettering our society through these technologies as well!

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