Personal robots: A cause for concern?


This is the first of a three-part series on technology and autism. The two entities are headed toward one another, and the collision will drastically alter our lives. In the first episode of the series, we look at the factors that contribute to the general societal fear of robots and their presence in daily life. Technology is developing at a breakneck pace, bringing us closer to a future in which robots help us with everything from routine daily tasks to home healthcare. Are we prepared for such a significant change in society?

Part I

No matter the setting, the subject keeps coming up in conversation. The idea of robots invading their lives causes a great deal of people to feel dread and fear. Similar to the well-known Star Wars films, imaginations are expanding to places no man has ever dared to go. Perhaps it’s time to remind everyone to take it easy; robots won’t take over the world or displacing millions of workers, for that matter. The technology is still in its early stages and has only a few capabilities. However, advancement is a linear process in which less complex robotic tasks are first mastered before moving on to more difficult ones. We are still a long way from having technology that mimics socialization and executive functioning in humans from a development perspective. But we’re getting closer to having robot helpers that can do a lot of things that were once thought to be impossible.

It would be wise to take a moment to consider history in order to put the fear of robots in our daily lives into some historical context. Henry Ford created the Model T car at the start of the 20th century. Mr. Ford wanted to create a car that was reliable, affordable, and could serve the needs of the average person. Between 1908 and 1927, when the model was discontinued, he ostensibly succeeded in achieving that goal, selling 15 million cars. We must not ignore the assembly line’s invention, which revolutionized the way that work is produced.

Without a doubt, the automobile’s impact on the horse-and-buggy industry’s sales caused a great deal of emotional turmoil. Jobs were in fact at risk, but society was able to adapt to those industry changes and many benefited from the new economy. Further, the assembly line must have caused a great deal of consternation as the pressure to “mass produce” was undoubtedly met with resistance. Experiencing culture shock, which shook 1908 society to its very core, was the order of the day. However, society overcame its apprehension toward new technology and gradually gained confidence in the first automobiles.

There has always been some level of fear and uncertainty when there are significant changes to the way we work, live, and interact with one another. There are many unanswered questions regarding robots, their role among us, and the degree of autonomy they actually possess. In order to create devices that serve to improve our quality of life and personal productivity, programmers must address these issues. We would be better off if we could figure out how to use robots to help the elderly, people with disabilities, seniors with Alzheimer’s, and other weak members of society.

There are many unanswered questions about topics like employment, safety, and privacy, and our concerns are understandable. The serious difficulties that the expanding adult population of autistic people faces, however, are not diminished by having a narrow perspective. It is true that the adult world they are entering is dangerous and uncertain, but it also offers them unheard-of opportunities. Technology can significantly improve the lives of underprivileged community members and give them new hope and opportunities. Importantly, the shaky climate of change was the same in 1908. We can either let fear paralyze us or we can take the necessary step of faith to embrace the future.

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