“The most advanced (and difficult) technologies are not those that stand apart from people, but those that are most deeply embedded in, and responsive to, human and social networks,” Mindell writes.
Mindell, an MIT professor who draws on years of experience in undersea robotics exploration, shares the stories of commercial pilots, deep sea and space explorers as well as Predator drone pilots, all of whom have seen automation change their work.
Their jobs still exist — and machines adds to how much they can accomplish — but some of the glamour and fun of a job can disappear.
Air Force pilots flying drones over Afghanistan sit in shipping containers in the United States, and risk feeling less connected to their battles and the larger cause. The excitement and prestige of cruising over a battlefield is gone. They can be mocked as armchair warriors.
The flying experience is more sterile — pilots do not even perform takeoffs or landings. They have to be careful about turning too sharply, because changing the angle of the drone’s antenna can lose its connection with satellites.
But the savings can feel impossible to turn down. It’s possible to train 10 pilots of remote vehicles for the price of one pilot for a manned vehicle.
For deep sea exploration, Mindell writes that 40 to 100 robotic vessels — without a person on board — can be built for the price of one vessel that’s equipped to carry a person. Robotics would seem to bring about a chance to exponentially increase the amount of research conducted.
Despite the opportunity for more productivity, something really interesting happens. Those in fields affected by automation aren’t always quick to embrace robotics. The automation often triggers an identity crisis.
Mindell tells the story of a debate over whether to spend almost half the U.S. oceanography budget on a new vessel that would carry a human, or whether to build a cheaper model that a human operates remotely.
He recalls one scientist saying, “We all know that the opportunity to dive in Alvin was one of the things that attracted us to this field as graduate students. I’d hate to see our graduate students not have that opportunity.”
For pilots of commercial airplanes, work can largely be left to an autopilot system. But this can also leave them feeling bored.
We may soon see a similar story play out in cars, as driving becomes increasingly automated. The pride of being good at parallel parking may be meaningless as cars can park themselves. We won’t be able to brag about fitting in that incredibly small spot, or how we navigated out of a tricky spot.
The enjoyment of cutting one’s lawn — admittedly, a feeling not universally held — could disappear too as automated lawn mowers wait in the wings.
Robots are here to stay, and we’ll have to find happy balances. Can tasks where machines play a large role ever provide the happiness, fulfillment and prestige of how we used to define jobs?
We may be hard-wired to connect more with the more classical human story. Explorers who have trekked places in the flesh end up in history books. We all know Christopher Columbus and Neil Armstrong, but can the average person name anyone on the Mars Rover team?