A robot walked into a bar...

·3 min read

Jul. 18—For years we've worried about robots taking our jobs, but it turns out they can simply fire us from our jobs.

Not surprisingly, Amazon is leading the way.

Stephen Normandin, of Phoenix, was one of those hard-working delivery drivers we've all become accustomed to, racing around to deliver our Amazon orders — often on the same day or the day after the items were ordered.

The Amazon contract driver by all accounts had the kind of work ethic all would admire. He's an old-school kind of guy who gives his all.

But Normandin was summarily fired recently by a machine, which simply sent him an automated email that said he was done.

In their boundless search for efficiency, Amazon has high-tech machines that track employees' speed and automatically cuts them loose if workers don't live up to the pre-programmed algorithms.

Normandin had no human being to appeal to, no one to tell that the reason he didn't always meet the unreasonable standards for delivery times was because apartment complexes were locked up because of the pandemic, slowing the process of getting inside to deliver packages.

Like most changes in life — like chronic aches and pains — the advent of cyborg-type technology is a gradual thing we barely notice.

Amazon is speeding up the process, not only using robotic technology in its warehouses but making machines the boss — hiring, tracking and firing workers with little to no human oversight.

While robots and robotic-like technology have grown dramatically, particularly in factories, experts say the expectation that robots would be roaming everywhere has not come to pass as quickly as expected. That has, in a sense, been a bit of a letdown as we've spent the past decades watching movies and reading books about how human-like robots would soon be interacting with us in day-to-day life.

Part of the problem has been that getting robots to learn new things on their own and have intrinsic safety built in has been a bigger challenge than many thought.

But with a lot of smart people working on it, robotic technology will keep improving.

Still, it appears there will be many things robots will never be able to master. No matter how advanced they become, we can take solace in knowing robotic machines will never be able to get our jokes.

Siri and Alexa can mine millions of jokes from the internet and repeat them to us, but they'll never understand them. Linguists say that's because our complex creative language, especially humor, is impossible for artificial intelligence to learn and comprehend.

Even when robotic machines are fed a lot of creative language, they completely miss context, a core element of humor.

So a robot may be able to walk into a bar, but it won't be able to do comedy.

Amazon has bet on the premise that machines, properly programmed, can make decisions more accurately and quickly than humans can.

But while robots can be programmed to perform most tasks and follow algorithms, they can't feel the kind of true emotions we do — like whether a 63-year-old Army veteran who busted his tail delivering Amazon packages should maybe be kept on the job.

Tim Krohn is at tkrohn@mankatofreepress.com or 507-344-6383.

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