Last weekend I flew to Boston by way of New York City (I’m no cartographer but what in the actual hell), and when I stepped off the plane for my connection at LaGuardia, I felt like I was stepping into an introvert’s paradise. Every seat at every restaurant was equipped with an iPad, and a thousand people were poking at them instead of having to talk to one another. At first I thought it was happening at just the one restaurant, but as I walked down the terminal I saw glowing screen after glowing screen, and it dawned on me that the devices were there to replace servers. So people were just ordering food, swiping their own credit cards, and waiting on their beers to arrive via a waiter who was obligated neither to speak nor make eye contact. The customers just went right on playing Candy Crush or whatever people play these days on iPads. Paradise, I tell you!
Now I realize I’m from way down south, but I haveseen iPad-waiters before. I just haven’t seen this many of them. And right after my private swell of exuberance—because I was tired and very planesick, which I didn’t used to know was actually a thing but which is very real for me nowadays—I started to think how terribly sad all the iPad-waiters were. I ordered a Mojito (because mint calms the stomach, duh), replaced with a tap the house rum with my favorite, and never even had to smile at the guy who muddled my mint leaves. And then it dawned on me: the iPads were ROBOTS.
When people say in conversation the world will be ruled by robots one day, I always picture some dystopic future where artificial human bodies stand behind the bar asking “How was your flight?” in Siri-voice before shakily pouring and delivering your Pinot. But no y’all. The robots are the iPads, see? They replaced the people but we didn’t catch it because they don’t look like people.
So the introvert in me is still largely ok with this. We’ve all been warned this was going to happen in the service sector. Robots will take our food orders and rotate our tires and, they say, even cut our hair one day. But the real reason it rattled me is that I’ve been advocating for more careful use of technology in elementary schools in my county, where every kid is given a Chromebook in third grade. I was told by the pro-technology squad in one of our meetings how “personalized” the curriculum could become when it was delivered by a smart device, and how much more knowledge children acquire when they have access to this kind of individualized, adaptive instruction. When you walk down the hallways of elementary schools now, you don’t see kids arranging items with scissors and glue. You see glowing screen after glowing screen. Can you see where I’m going with this? THE CHROMEBOOKS ARE THE ROBOTS, AND THE ROBOTS ARE OUR CHILDREN’S TEACHERS. It. Is. Happening.
I don’t know about you guys, but I’m no fan of my children’s most formative years being spent under the tutelage of robot teachers. (Watch these educational applications: they graphically simulate the classroom and have, of course, animated teacher stand-ins with names like Ms. Allison. There is no Ms. Allison, just zeros and ones kids, zeros and ones.) We’ve got to draw the line somewhere, as a society, demarcating what we will and will not let robots do. I hope it falls somewhere between leave-me-alone-in-the-airport and lead my kid’s discussion on Lord of the Fliesin ninth grade. But hey, that’s just me.