THE BLOG

Why We Shouldn't Fear Robots

06/02/2015 04:14 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2016

It's just in: Tech billionaires and all-around smart guys believe that robots are here to replace us, starting with our jobs. Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking (the all-around smart guy) are just three of the heavyweights joining chorus with tech investors to raise the alarm that it's not just low-skilled workers that are at risk.

Despite their concerns, however, it seems these all around pundits are placing too much faith in robots and too little faith the humans they're meant to replace.

As a technical matter, robots have been supplanting human beings in menial and dangerous tasks for many decades. Ever since George Devol (I know, sounds like "Devil") sold the first robotic arm to manufacturers in 1954, unions have rarely protested losing member jobs to machines that can pour molten metal into vats or crash test cars.

All in all, that seems like a good thing. Replacing low skill jobs that endanger human health and existence with higher skill jobs that enhance the same should encourage young people to gain more education and skills (and avoid becoming crash-test dummies).

Yet, such logic only works if there are higher skill jobs being created. Unfortunately, the rate at which low skill jobs are being replaced has increased and that has people alarmed. Perhaps then that is where the attention of the all-around smart guys and billionaires should be focused.

"When robots take all the work, what will be left for us to do?" some ask.

"The same things we did before the Industrial Revolution created factory jobs that insulted human intelligence," I would answer.

Pre-Revolution pursuits included farming, artistry, scientific and intellectual (i.e., not merely academic) discovery, historical writing, spiritual development and exploration. In other words, before big factories people wasted less time on on post-Revolution time-wasters and gadgets, such as TV.

Of course, some would say it's still just a matter of time before artificial intelligence advances to the point where robots can perform even these "very human", pre-Revolution tasks. Journalism, for example, is already facing the invasion of robot editors and writers.

Yet, to worry that these machines would become Faulkners and Steve Jobses is a bit of a stretch. There is far more to creating, developing, producing and envisioning than logical thinking or algorithms that mimic how humans typically think.

In fact, what holds artificial intelligence back are not limitations to modeling the human brain functions we know a lot about. What prevents robots from composing like Mozart or performing like James Brown are the quirks in our brains and physiology that are still a mystery. One of these quirks is called "plasticity."

(Neuro) Plasticity is an incredibly beautiful characteristic of our brains that enables them to "reroute" their functions based upon trauma, change and experience, often in an interactive and unpredictable way. Apart from changing the pathways of how our neurons fire, plasticity seems to influence how we think, create, live and love.

As a result, plasticity -- and the brain's susceptibility to it -- makes our already unique, human minds, even more unique, and that's something even the best algorithms that drive robot thinking can't touch.

Thus, the fear of robotics and artificial intelligence, if warranted at all, seems most appropriate among those who are not making the best use of their intelligence, creativity, pain and experience in the first place. That's not a reason to fear robots. It's a reason to start outcompeting them.