The capabilities of the Atlas robot are demonstrated during a demo at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in Boston, Massachusetts.
Photograph by Ann Hermes — AP
By Erik Sherman
March 5, 2015

Fear of robots, computers, and automation may be at an all-time high since B movies of the 1950s. Not only is there concern about jobs — even white-collar occupations are vulnerable — but big names in technology have weighed in with their worries.

Philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates said, “[I] don’t understand why some people aren’t concerned” about artificial super intelligence that could exceed human control. Physicist Stephen Hawking thinks that “development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” as machines could redesign themselves at a rate that would leave biological evolution in the dust. Tesla Motors CEO and technology investor Elon Musk said research in the area could be like “summoning the demon” that is beyond control. He donated $10 million to the Future of Life Institute, which sponsors research into how humanity can navigate the waters of change in the face of technology.

That’s one camp.

Then there’s another that says doomsday concerns are overblown and that, like a new age FDR, the only thing to fear is fear itself. These people — technologists, economists, and others — say that the combination of artificial intelligence, automation, and robotics will usher in new, better solutions to world problems.

They argue that the fear of technology is old and past experience has proven that while new developments can kill off jobs, they create even more to replace them. Machines could, in theory, replace humans in a wide variety of occupations, but shortcomings in creativity, change, and even common sense are vast, making them unable to in the foreseeable future.

Instead, these people suggest, robots and computers will work side by side with humans, enhancing productivity and opening new vistas of freedom for people to move beyond the drudgery of current life. In short, the coming years will look like all the ones that came before and society will sort itself out. In fact, a new film “Chappie,” due out March 6, depicts an anti-Terminator view, a world in which robots hold the solutions and humans are the bad guys. “You would have something that has 1,000 times the intelligence that we have, looking at the same problems that we look at,” the director Neill Blomkamp told NBC News. “I think the level of benefit would be immeasurable.”

The swings of show biz reflect a deep concern and disagreement over whether technology holds promise or peril. The question comes down to whether the past necessarily predicts the future or if humankind could be in for a nasty shock. Hopefully the optimists will be able to say, “We told you so.” Here are five voices that say worries are overblown and leaps in technology will bring the human race along with them.


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