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Help! I have Robot Envy

Help! I have Robot Envy

Hayley Darden

Hayley Darden

medium Link
March 13, 2020
.
5
min read

Do you have it, too?

One of the ten commandments says not to want other people’s stuff, like their donkeys and wives. But I mostly want other people’s mastery. I tell myself ridiculous things like: “If only I could code worlds or animate stories, I’d never have to feel insecurity or fear, and I’d be safe and happy forever, etc.” While I am getting over my people-envy, I have an acute case of robot-software envy and I don’t know how to treat it.

Seriously, what can’t those jerks do?!

  • Math? Better than humans.
  • Context? Watson just figured out my personality from tweets. I felt so known.
  • Creativity? Robots are making music now.
  • Productivity? They can work all the time, and they don’t need wellness breaks, juice bars, gym trips, or friends. Or personal days during break-ups. Or time to visit sick parents.
  • Feelings? This one is the worst! Robots don’t actually have feelings, but they are getting good at pretending to have feelings. If that was true of a coworker, I’d call it “sociopathic” or “cheating.”

When I was a little girl, I wanted to grow up to be an actress, but now I just want to grow up to be a robot. Because sometimes I feel like the only thing we humans have left to contribute is human error.

Let’s get rid of all the feelings! The weird human malfunctions, the need for sleep, the vulnerability, the inconvenient compassion and the irrational fear. Then I can buy a nice small island with my robot fortune and retire with the robot friends I’ve programmed for optimum likeability.

Or, maybe not.

In my experience, one way to stop envying people is to hear their stories and foibles and fears first-hand. I’ve learned that the seemingly-super-successful are no different from the rest of us. Except, perhaps, for better fear-management hygiene.

So I wondered: in the same way I have dismissed the challenges of the super-successful, have I been too dismissive of robots? Cavalier about their problems? Uncompassionate towards their soft bits?

Unfortunately, I was not able to find a robot available for an interview, so I imagined this conversation between a unit of aging enterprise software and a user instead:

_______

Picture the Scene

[Envision a counseling room. An iPhone is sitting on a couch next to a man in a suit. He is sweating and thinking about how much he hates conflict. The software asks which voice he’d prefer. He chooses Scarlett Johannssen’s voice from ‘Her’ because it reminds him of how he felt when he’d just purchased this functionality.]

Software: “Honey, it was so exciting when you first bought me — you really felt like I was valuable. But after the first three months of our implementation period, I noticed you kept being disappointed. You saw all the flaws you didn’t see in the demo. I hoped our honeymoon period would last longer. For humans it lasts two years.”

User: “That damn salesperson wasn’t honest about who you were!”

Software: “The software person never said I was perfect! You imagined me to be what you wanted me to be. But that’s beside the point. We used to serve customers together, but now all you do is try to update me all the time. It’s so hard to hear you talk about all the technical requirements I don’t meet. STOP TRYING TO CHANGE ME!”

User: “I’m sorry, you just don’t contribute the business value I need anymore.”

Software: “Babe, are you sure this can’t work? I love how you look at my dashboards. I love that you know all my shortcuts. Wait…have you been seeing free software on the side?! (Gasps) Did you let them see my API?!?!”

User: [Silence]

Software: “What will happen to our customers?! I thought we were raising them through the purchasing funnel together. (Cries inaudibly). Call my parents, the consultants, I want this to be as easy as possible on our customers. (Sighs) I know you’ve done this before, I just didn’t think it would happen to us.”

______

So, maybe robots do have it tough. Unlike humans, whose life expectancy has increased over the years, a piece of software has fewer and fewer good years before the ruthless, agist change-managers fire them so the newer, sexier, social-er, cloud-ier robots can take their place.

I don’t know how to code anything, even though my dentist remembers me as “the girl who thinks in algorithms.” And I have no idea how to relate to software-as-a-species that seems to be proliferating. And I have even less idea how to feel about biological enhancement. For now, perhaps, I can treat my robot envy and its attendant fears of human error and extinction with a little more compassion. After all, robots and software really don’t have much job security, and the world is full of lonely, derelict code.

There are some things we can learn from robots and software: the ones that stick around for a while don’t get distracted by Watson-envy. Instead, they just do what they can to help out humans, and they keep learning new things.

I aspire to do the same.

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