Are you a robot? I am.

I had planned to write about feeling overwhelmed by tasks and projects despite my evolving ability to say no (a skill everyone should hone). Then I thought about how much I am able to accomplish every day and began wondering why I don’t feel more overwhelmed, what with three careers (author, birth doula, and marketing consultant), volunteer activities, and family and personal commitments. How do I manage it?

Maybe the same way you do. In a word: templates.

I use e-mail templates for many situations: sending contracts to clients, responding to inquiries about the Nursing Mothers Counsel, and following up with prospects. I use Microsoft Word templates for creating various kinds of documents. I use newsletter templates for e-mail marketing in Emma (which I use with my clients) and MailChimp (which I use as an author).

Templates are life rafts for the overcommitted. Just assemble, address, and send—little thought required and much time saved. Why reinvent the wheel each time you have to send a piece of correspondence that is essentially the same as hundreds of others?

But if so much of my daily activity consists of simply assembling components I’ve already created, what does that make me?

Robot

In a word (or two): a robot.

This conundrum is articulated perfectly in a 2012 Wired article titled “Better Than Human: Why Robots Will—and Must—Take Our Jobs” by Kevin Kelly. “When robots and automation do our most basic work, making it relatively easy for us to be fed, clothed, and sheltered, then we are free to ask, ‘What are humans for?’”

This question may induce a certain level existential anxiety. Yet I find the idea of technology taking over routine aspects of my work life quite appealing. We are at a relatively primitive stage of office automation, which arguably began with the invention of the typewriter. I create templates, but still must store them, hunt for them, open them, modify them, address them, and check them over. Far too much of my time goes toward managing interactions and responses in ways that are ripe for robotic takeover.

The unevolved state of automation is not for lack of trying by technologists. Siri’s inventors, for example, recognize her limitations and have undertaken to build a more responsive digital persona that learns as it goes. I look forward to a day when a personal digital assistant is truly that—rather than a shrunken computer with a clumsy interface and a tendency to misunderstand my intentions.

Not everyone is so sanguine about where automation is headed. The video below from C.G.P. Grey takes a darker long-term view, comparing humans today to the horses of the early automobile age—blithely unaware that new technology would eventually render them (no pun intended) unemployable.  Artificial creativity, anyone?

What do you think? Do you fear being usurped by robots or welcome the freedom that might come from having the time to contemplate what humans are for?

* * *

For an up-to-the-minute conversation on the state of automation, see Reddit’s Automate stream. Or, for an in-depth look, see The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, by Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAffee.

8 thoughts on “Are you a robot? I am.

  1. I am excited to read that you are a doula! I had a birth doula at both of my births and found these ladies indispensable. I do not understand why anyone would ever give birth without one, whether at home or in the hospital (I have done both). As for automation and robots, the more time freed for consuming/creating art in its many forms, the better.

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    • Well, I agree–but of course I’m biased :-). I had doulas for both my births, too. You know, I hadn’t thought about automation as it my relate to doulas until I read your post…something about the juxtaposition of ideas. I just watched the indie movie “Automata” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1971325/). Definitely raised some interesting questions about what makes humans human.

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  2. You are a long way from being a robot. My 25-year-old son and I talked about this very topic this morning. There was an NPR program on how we’ll someday be able to download our memories and continue on as —?

    As for feeling overwhelmed — yeah, how do you do all that? Cheers.

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    • I’ve heard that idea. Fortunately (or unfortunately?) we are so far from understanding the essence of what it means to be human that I don’t think a few downloaded memories will constitute a reasonable facsimile of me–nor does using a few templates. Whew!

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  3. In my own experience, computers are more burdensome and time-consuming than the old much-missed notebook and pen. How often have I spent painful hours mapping something out on a hard-drive when I could have performed the same task in five minutes or less if I had done it by hand? I believe we are psyched into unquestioning digital enslavement, and I stand for freedom!

    I recall not so long ago having a range of perfect templates and a photocopier.

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    • Certainly, some tasks are more easily–and pleasurably–accomplished the old-fashioned way. On the other hand. I’ve balanced a checkbook and done my taxes manually, and I would never go back to doing either of those things without a computer!

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  4. This is a heavy one, and you’ve already pointed out the elephant in the room. We live in a world where money regulates (however imperfectly) the distribution of things – which are necessarily not in infinite supply. (Star Trek’s “replicator” notwithstanding, matter and energy will always be limited.) So, when robots do everything, what will humans be PAID for? Or, if money ceases to be a useful mechanism, how will resources be distributed? Can you imagine the 1% who hold the lion’s share of the beans ever being willing to give up the lion’s share of control over distribution? Will there be a revolution? We do outnumber them, after all. I think we should all be very concerned about this. When I hear about some new invention that has the power to make lives better, I feel warm inside, but whenever I see something that takes some person’s job away, I feel cold.

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    • Yes, it is a conundrum. I am not sure very many people are thinking about it in this stark way. I worry because so many dangerous products, trends, and social constructs came into being because they seemed like a good idea at the time–and no one bothered to take the time or expend the energy to put the brakes on.

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