Stacking Up

Years ago, at a dinner party in Jackson, Tennessee, I found myself surrounded by members of a distinctive subculture: potato chip engineers. The casual question, “What do you do?” led to a detailed explanation of a machine in the local Pringles factory. The Pringles are spread out in a line as they are shaped and baked, and then those lightweight, brittle crisps have to be shifted into a stack to be sealed in a can. It takes a carefully calibrated machine to get that job done without breaking them all.

There are all sorts of reasons that a robot is a better Pringles stacker than a human worker could be. Our clumsy fingers get in the way, we get bored and lose focus, we wear out our tendons performing the same task over and over, we carry germs that have to be kept out of the food, and we need breaks to eat, go to the bathroom, and sleep. (To our credit, a machine is much less likely to create a tutorial showing people how to make their Pringles stand up in a circle just for the fun of it.)

As machine intelligence improves, more and more factory jobs are being transferred from humans to robots. But, as much as we like to imagine a future paradise where we lay around and let the robots do the heavy lifting, humans actually need work. At a Communications Forum program on neurodiversity we co-sponsored earlier this year, I learned that the strongest predictor for mental health and quality of life for people on the autism spectrum is employment. Whether our brains are considered typical or not, work brings us social interaction, stimulation, purpose, and a sense of belonging.

What do we do in a world where humans need work, but work doesn’t need humans? We’ll discuss these issues in more depth at our Hollomon Memorial Symposium on May 10. For now, I have three questions:

At MIT, we take pride in being makers. Creating something is a source of dignity for many Americans, whether we are the inventors and engineers or we are the laborers who assemble the parts into a new whole. As machines take over assembly lines, what do we owe the workers who are losing their identity as makers?

Americans, especially white men, are ambivalent about the kinds of jobs that are more available in our current economy: service professions and health care, which have traditionally been seen as women’s work. How can we shift our attitude towards work to recognize the dignity in healing, helping, and creating a stronger community?

The greatest strength of the human brain is its flexibility. When needs change, humans create new roles and learn new jobs. Machines are usually very good at doing one thing. If we’re not careful, we could end up with a lot of fancy Pringles stackers and no one who wants to buy Pringles. How can we adapt and reuse our machines so that we don’t waste our economic and environmental resources?