Work of the Future Today

February 2019
Super Bowl 2019: The Year of the Robots?

(Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Michelob ULTRA Super Bowl 2019/YouTube and TurboTax Live 2019 Super Bowl Commercial “RoboChild”/YouTube.)

The robots are coming! Or at least, that’s what the commercials from last week’s Super Bowl want you to believe. If you watched the game—and somehow managed to stay awake through all those three-and-outs—you probably noticed a recurring theme in the commercials, aside from the usual serving of celebrity cameos and respect-the-troops-and-also-buy-this-car gimmicks.

It was hard to miss the common reference among a number of Big Game ads to an impending robot-run future, and to the uncertain role of human workers in that future. Assuming Super Bowl commercials are, for better or worse, some reflection of popular culture, there’s no denying that robot anxiety has become a true cultural moment.

Most of the ads managed to strike a humorous note on the issue. For example, TurboTax brought us “RoboChild,” a young robot who dreams of becoming a CPA. In a nod to the importance of “soft skills” in service-oriented jobs, we see RoboChild learn that it lacks the emotional intelligence needed to work as a CPA. A number of analysts have predicted that soft skills like emotional intelligence and creativity are the least likely work-related capacities to be automated in the near future, and so jobs like customer-interfacing CPAs may indeed be safe from RoboChild for quite a while.

We saw another robot reference in an ad for Michelob. Here we see robots surpassing their human counterparts in a number of physical tasks, running faster, cycling harder, and hogging up the driving range. Considering some of the recent reveals from cutting-edge robotics companies like Boston Dynamics, this vision doesn’t seem too far off. (Though some would-be athletic challengers still have issues to work out…) We’re reminded at the end of the ad, though, that even if robots could beat us at sports, that doesn’t mean we’d want to grab a beer with them.

We got by far the bleakest vision of an automated future from the commercial for SimpliSafe, a home security company. In this ad, we see stalker drones, robots at baseball games ready to take our jobs, and virtual assistants who are “always listening.” In this world, and conveniently for SimpliSafe, the only safe place is your home (even though you may have a creepy virtual assistant in there too). This is a humorous take on a “world full of fear,” but it speaks to a growing unease about how new technologies are changing our world and making our own place in it uncertain.

This is the type of vision of the future that MIT’s Work of the Future project hopes to counter. A future in which new technologies confront us as alienated and hostile is certainly a possibility, but it is just one potential future. Researchers at the Work of the Future believe our technological future is not predetermined but actively shaped by our institutional and technological choices today and in the near-term. Our future doesn’t have to force us into our homes to hide from technological threats of the outside world. We can build a future where technology helps more people live fuller, happier lives. And who knows––maybe even grab a beer with a robot?