Should We Fear Robots?

6987575418_733478d54b_oFlickr Duncan Hull (CC)

EDITOR’S NOTE: In October 2017, BQO’s M. Anthony Mills interviewed Paul McClure, a sociologist and author of the recent study “‘You’re Fired,’ Says the Robot: The Rise of Automation in the Workplace, Technophobes, and Fears of Unemployment,” which looks at how people are responding, emotionally and psychologically, to the new wave of automation that is transforming the nature of work.


There’s a lot of debate these days about whether robots will (or have already begun to) take our jobs — what John Maynard Keynes dubbed “technological unemployment.” What, exactly, is technological unemployment and why are we hearing so much about it now?

Keynes introduced that expression in the midst of the Great Depression in a 1930 essay entitled, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.” What Keynes was worried about then, I think, was the gradual replacement of human labor by machines. Today, with incredible advances in artificial intelligence, robotics, and machine learning software, we’re seeing renewed interest in this economic concept. Bill Gates recently advocated a “robot tax” that would be levied on corporations that use robotics that replace human labor, and a proposal for universal basic income is being floated by others in the tech community for similar reasons.

Of course, some occupations stand to be replaced by emerging workplace technologies more than others, and automation isn’t new either. The city of Detroit, for example, has already witnessed part of this transformation in the automotive industry. But what’s unique today is that these technologies can do things that were once reserved for skilled human workers in many different fields. In 2013, Oxford researchers Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne estimated that within two decades 47 percent of American jobs would be susceptible to computerization. So these new workplace technologies aren’t just driving trucks. They’re approving loans, preparing taxes, writing press releases, surveying crops, filling prescriptions, reviewing legal documents, guarding property, and many other things that increasingly force people to look for kinds of paid work that can’t be automated.

Your research focuses not so much on whether robots will take our jobs as how people respond to technological change, psychologically and emotionally — especially “technophobia.” How does technophobia fit into this broader debate about automation and the future of work?

That’s right. There are plenty of well-respected economists looking at this issue and trying to figure out whether it will happen or not — whether robots will take our jobs. My research, though, is more concerned with how individuals are responding to the very possibility of losing their jobs to a machine or some piece of software. With some of the economic projections out there — and some of them are quite alarming despite the fact that the stock market seems to be doing really well right now — I wanted to know whether people were worried about technological unemployment and how that may affect them emotionally and psychologically. It was surprising to find out just how many people were likely to say that they were afraid or very afraid of A.I., robots, and the like.

I also learned over the course of this research that studies of technophobia stretch back decades. Larry Rosen and Michelle Weil conducted some excellent studies of technophobia in the mid 90s related to computer anxiety in school settings, for instance. But I felt like we needed an updated version of this for the current wave of workplace automation. Thankfully, Chapman University’s Survey on American Fears tapped into this exact phenomenon. I used the data they collected and devised a newer definition of “technophobe” that included anyone who was afraid or very afraid of one of the following items: robots replacing people in the workforce, robots that can make their own decisions and take their own actions, A.I., people trusting A.I. to do work, and technology that you (i.e. the respondent) don’t understand. There were over 1,500 respondents in the survey, and 37 percent of them were technophobic according to this definition.

Who, according to your research, is most likely to be technophobic and why?

In my study, I found that women, non-white minorities, and those with the least amount of education were the most likely to fear some of the technologies that threaten employment prospects. This is somewhat ironic, I think, because emerging workplace technologies are often promised to level playing fields and decrease economic inequality. For technophobes in these historically marginalized groups, however, those promises are not being widely felt or accepted.

I also found that technophobes were more likely to report having anxiety-related health issues like feeling nervous or anxious, having trouble sleeping, or being unable to stop worrying. They were also two to three times more likely to fear unemployment and financial insecurity when compared to their non-technophobic counterparts.

At the societal level, has technophobia gotten worse? Or is it a cyclical phenomenon, connected, perhaps, to moments of intense technological and economic disruption? (I’m thinking of the Luddites during the Industrial Revolution, for instance.)

That’s a good question. I do think that technophobia ebbs and flows, as I say in my paper. There was of course a surge of technophobia during the Luddite Rebellion during the Industrial Revolution and then again during the Great Depression when Keynes was writing. Today we are again seeing even more economic disruption, and some of that can be good, but with it usually comes some fear and anxiety that play out in a variety of ways. At the same time, history is contingent and moves unpredictably, so while I think we might be experiencing a resurgence of technophobia now and in the coming years, I don’t subscribe to a cyclical or deterministic view of history.

At least since the Enlightenment, technology has often been linked to the idea of progress — whether because scientific progress is thought to produce technological wonders or because technology is seen as an engine of economic and social progress or both. What does the prevalence (or rise) of technophobia mean for this narrative?

I totally agree with your first point. Since technology (though I hate to use that term in such a broad and generalized sense) is often linked with progress, the presence of technophobia undermines this narrative if it becomes widespread. With 37 percent of the respondents in my study being technophobic — which is sizable and somewhat surprising, I think — the next step is to see whether individuals who report these feelings of technological apprehension attempt to mobilize or form neo-Luddite groups that aim to halt the march of technological progress.

Are the technophobes right?

It’s hard to be too pessimistic at this precise moment with the stock market high and unemployment rates relatively low. Still, the labor force participation rate is lower than it’s been in the past, economic inequality is high, and there’s a general consensus that much of the recent political turmoil we’ve seen in America is a result of working class and manufacturing jobs that have been outsourced or automated. So I wouldn’t say technophobes are being irrational at all. But in order to stem these fears or the possibility of widespread technological unemployment, we need to be more attuned to the way we engage with the technologies that have a discernible impact on our futures.

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