Introducing Automaton

Introducing Automaton
Illustration: Jim Cooke (Gizmodo)
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Automation is killing jobs
Automation is the future
Automation is good
Automation is bad
Automation is coming
Automation is inevitable

According to one of our most infamous and widely experienced automated features, the searching masses are divided—or being divided, maybe—over just what it is that automation is doing. Still, if you want to take a crash survey through the predominant attitudes towards the topic, you could do worse than Google autocomplete: Automation is feared as a job-eater, is perennially coated in futurism, maybe possibly has some benefits, and is generally believed to be unstoppable anyway. In something resembling that order.

And it is fitting that one of the major automators of our daily experience is helping to automate our thoughts about automation. (It’s also fitting that the very top suggestion, which I excluded above, is an incomprehensible fragment—“automation is well suitable for the environments which are”—pulled from a spammy-looking site called Brainly that apparently has very good SEO.) Because even the biggest automators often aren’t quite sure how or what or why they’re automating. And sometimes when they are sure what they’re automating, those companies aren’t talking publicly about it, because what they’re automating is people’s jobs.

All of this is to say, it’s a good time to try to debug all of that. Which is why we’re introducing Automaton.

Look, these are fraught, nebulous times when we hear promises of a future free of menial labor, but better expect to compete with automated systems for scraps of gig work. When we find ourselves in the midst an AI renaissance, but wherein it can be unclear who or what the renaissance is for—our convenience, mass data collection, omni-surveillance... better voice recognition software?—and what biases are being built into it.

Automation itself is a fraught, nebulous concept. It entails the advancement of technology and the displacement of human labor, sure. But if the word merely described increasingly automatic machinery and software, why does every article on the subject seem to feature images of menacingly smoothed humanoid robots? Artificial intelligence, automated robotics, mechanized factories; each of these concepts gets rolled together in a lumpen ball of futurity, the only definitive commonality being that they all, in one way or another, threaten the autonomy of we puny humans.

So what is a poor human to do? Automaton aims to help formulate some semblance of an answer. Here, I will keep tabs on how automation and artificially intelligent systems are battering and augmenting the human landscape. To watch the drivers as the autonomous cars leave the driveways. To listen to the human voices in the datasets the machine learning algorithms are trained on. To load the apps that promise frictionless cybernetic service but obscure age-old underpaid human labor.

To be sure, there’s great promise in automation. A world where no one has to manually pick strawberries or retrieve heavy items from the top shelf in a warehouse or offer customer service to an irate person calling because their online order of a flat of strawberry jam was misplaced is plenty alluring—if, of course, a fulfilling alternative to a 9-5 wage-based economy can be established for those who currently depend on it.

Which is why I’ll be especially interested in those capable of automating tasks—the coders, engineers, the automators—to see how they might influence the changing world of work.

And we’ll look back, to the origins of automation, to understand that for all the talk of new Skynets and singularities, we’ve harbored similarly shaped aspirations and fears for thousands of years—back when an automaton was just a man behind the gears. And to understand why that doesn’t make them any less valid. We’ll note that, for instance, despite popular belief, the machine-breaking Luddites were quite justified in smashing the looms that were taking their jobs. That they did so not out of ignorance, but out of tactical necessity. And we’ll do so in hopes that we’ll all have a better choice, 200 years after their example, of whether to smash the machines or coexist with them.

So join us, step up, and take a peek at the shiny and mysterious new Automaton. It’s just a man in here, and I’ll be publishing human intelligence on artificial and automatic affairs twice weekly here on out.

For tips, feedback, or other ideas about living with the robots, I can be reached at