Senator Dan Coates (R-Ind) chaired a Congressional hearing on May 25 of this year titled: The Transformative Impact of Robots and Automation, which must have left everyone within earshot of room 106 in the Dirksen Senate Office Building scratching their head as to why, after nearly a decade of hearings, Congress is still so clueless about robots and the robot-driven transformation already underway in the U.S.
In 2009 and then again in 2013, Congress asked for and received the exhaustive research study put together by over one hundred roboticists and engineers across all categories of the technology: A Roadmap for U.S. Robotics: From Internet to Robotics.
The word “Roadmap” was a significant word in that document’s title: it pointed out a way to go, a road along which robotics and humans could travel on their way to future success together.
Seems no one had read the document, because, if any had read it, much of the May 25th hearing would have been quite unnecessary. Congress has yet to take to the road, map in hand, to really see what’s going on in America.
It was like opening a four-year-old time capsule when Coats gaveled the hearing room to order with a 3D printed gavel the manufacture of which he marveled about to the audience.
Where’s he been? Most any pre-teen in the country can rattle off 3D tech talk as if its second nature.
There are 5,000 people in Senator Coates’ congressional district in Indiana who’ve had laparoscopy administered by a daVinci robot.
He should be robot savvy and aware. If he was, sadly he wasn’t showing it.
Neither where his fellow mates from the Hill who flanked him to the left and right: David Schwiekert (R-AZ), Gary Peters (D-MI), Mike Lee (R-UT) Lee Beyer (D-OR). Each, before the hearing ended, would ask equally naive questions of the three individuals offering testimony: Andy McAfee (MIT); Adam Keiper (New Atlantis); and Harry Holzer (the McCourt School).
“There are assembly lines where you already look out on a field of robots that can work 24-7, they don’t need health insurance, they don’t take vacations and they don’t get sick,” Coats told Bloomberg BNA. “I think it’s coming faster than anybody realizes,” he said of the shift to machine workers.
The hearing’s first guest, Andy McAfee, had already said the same thing to 85 million people watching 60 Minutes in 2013 (Are robots hurting job growth?).
During the show, when asked about robot inroads into human jobs, McAfee famously remarked: “We ain’t seen nothing yet.”
That remark sent robo-phobia skyrocketing; a remark McAfee would later tone down (well after 60 Minutes), adding how robot job-taking also presents sizeable job opportunities for humans.
Too late. Damage done. The media has been fanning the flames of that one ever since.
Good to remember
The Joint Economic Committee (JEC) was created when Congress passed the Employment Act of 1946 (take note of that word “Employment”). Its primary tasks are to review economic conditions and to recommend improvements in economic policy.
Key phrase there: review economic conditions. Okay, that’s the mission, together with-in paralyzed Washington politics!-some recommendations for improvements.
And it’s understandable that the JEC wanted to get testimony on the record. Yet this was hardly testimony anyone would want to memorialize.
The hearing limped along for nearly two hours of back and forth between the clueless and the clued-in, with the clued-in rambling on about topics that each had delivered scores of times in other venues. The clueless blinked in mystified awe at them.
So what has come from years of clueless meetings like the one that Dan Coates chaired in May? Anything solid for a fearful citizenry?
Not much. Maybe the measly $40 million greenbacks, known as the National Robotics Initiative unveiled by President Obama at Carnegie Mellon University in June of 2011, can be counted.
How weak is that?
Concern on the rise…needlessly
Obviously, continued congressional cluelessness is bad for the Nation’s health. It would have been nice if one of the three experts had been a little vociferous in calling for immediate action (or is that only the domain of Bernie Saunders?).
It would have been nice as well if one or all of the JEC had gulped and said, “My God, sorry for our ignorance; let’s do something about this right now.”
No one did. The sparsely filled hearing room quietly emptied. Cameras stopped recording, lights were dimmed and everyone exited for the Memorial Day recess.
Robotics will just have to wait again until the next clueless hearing is held and we can all live through a ditto of this one once again.
Time, however, is hurrying near for all of us.
Kevin Kelly in his fine new book, The Inevitable, offers up a little insight into the world that the clueless insist on remaining clueless about:
“It is a safe bet that the highest-earning professions in the year 2050 will depend on automatons and machines that have not been invented yet. That is, we can’t see these jobs from here, because we can’t yet see the machines and technologies that will make them possible. Robots create jobs that we did not even know we wanted.”
It’s also a safe bet that as long as important government organizations like the Joint Economic Committee remain clueless, few if any of the people that they claim to represent will ever look forward with anything but angst and fear at the bright new day where, “Robots create jobs that we did not even know we wanted.”
The Transformative Impact of Robots and Automation hearing in the Dirksen Building was a decided bust. The lesson learned for the electorate to mull over: Are these the kinds of elected officials that the people can trust to guide them through the transformation that is well underway?