I remember watching “The Jetsons” on Saturday mornings as a kid. In the 1962 debut episode entitled “Rosie the Robot” we were introduced to George Jetson and his family of the future. George works at Spacely Sprockets as the operator of the company’s Referential Universal Digital Indexer. Operating it required George to press two buttons, labeled “On” and “Off”.
Jane, George’s wife and sophisticated homemaker, had to push far more buttons than George’s two-button machine . She had to push a button for cleaning the floors, a button for making breakfast, anther button to wash and fold the laundry, yet another button for cleaning the dishes. She had to push so many buttons that she developed a crooked index finger. She begged George for a robot maid to push the buttons for her, but George refused; “Jane, we are not getting a robot maid and that’s final!” So Jane went to the robot maid store and got Rosie, the robot.
George was furious, of course. Tonight’s dinner guest was to be George’s stingy and hot-headed boss Cosmo Spacely. Surely his boss would think he was overpaying him if he saw George with such an expensive luxury item like a robot maid. Sure enough, after discovering Rosie, Cosmo fired George. But Rosie saw the injustice in this and came to George’s defense. Using her New Jersey accent, she scolded Cosmo Spacely, and smashed a pineapple upside down cake over his head.
We don’t have loveable robots like Rosie in our homes today, but we do have millions of industrial robots in our factories. I’ve had to square my engineering career in the robotics industry with my humanist values. I’m not naïve about the impact of my industry. The hard truth is that you can’t stop the advancement of automation any more than you can hold back an incoming tide with a spoon. But even if you could, should you?
In the early 90’s, I lost a friend and classmate in an accident involving a gigantic sheet metal stamping machine. He’d still be alive today if a robot was tasked with putting the sheet metal blank into that press.
The best outcome for this modern automation revolution is not robotic maids like Rosie to push our buttons and make us pineapple upside-down cakes, but rather, jobs that are risk-free and reward full. We should be valued not by the number of repetitive motions that can be crammed between 15 minutes breaks, but by our inventive, artistic and social skills. Industrial robots save our lives, our sanity, our dignity, our backs, our wrists and our index fingers. I’m sure someday in the long distant future Jane Jetson will approve.