Hi, Robot: Foreign Affairs Explores What’s Next in the Age of Automation In Its July/August Issue

As the fields of automation and artificial intelligence evolve, fears have mounted over the potential for robots to “threaten our jobs, our purpose, our very self-definition as humans,” writes Editor Gideon Rose in his introduction to the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs. For some, technological advances push society onto the brink of a “world-historical leap into the unknown.” “But is that really the case?” Rose asks.

In the issue’s opening package, Foreign Affairs offers “dispatches from the frontlines of the robotics revolution,” exploring the economic and social implications of a rapidly evolving field that will, for better or for worse, reshape everyday life.

The Robots Are Coming

It is no question that robots could “greatly improve the quality of our lives at home, at work, and at play,” writes Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Daniela Rus, who directs MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. The goal of integrating robots into daily life is “to find ways for machines to assist and collaborate with humans more effectively.” That future is not quite here yet: although robots have evolved in “perception, reasoning, control, and coordination,” they still lag behind humans in “abstraction, generalization, and creative thinking.” So while “creating a world of pervasive, customized robots is a major challenge,” Rus likens its scope to “the problem computer scientists faced nearly three decades ago, when they dreamed of a world where computers would become integral parts of human societies.”

Will Humans Go the Way of Horses?

“The debate over what technology does to work, jobs, and wages is as old as the industrial era itself,” begin MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, as they consider the potential for robotics and automation to render human labor obsolete, just as the steam engine did for horses. “The answer is almost certainly no,” they contend, for humans are “more dexterous and nimble than any single piece of machinery.” And although computers might outpace humans at arithmetic and pattern recognition, our mental advantages cannot be matched. Still, the authors argue, “it is more than a bit blithe to assume that human labor will forever remain the most important factor of production,” noting that “it’s time to start discussing what kind of society we should construct around a labor-light economy.”

Same as It Ever Was

In recent years, an influential strain of techno-optimism has promoted the idea that “humanity stands on the verge of breakthroughs in information technology, robotics, and artificial intelligence that will dwarf what has been achieved in the past two centuries,” writes Martin Wolf, the chief economics commentator for the Financial Times. Others, he notes, warn of “great dangers, including those of soaring unemployment and inequality.” But is all the hype justified? “The answer is no,” Wolf argues. Although late twentieth-century technologies brought “unmeasured economic and social value” and “unparalleled social and economic changes,” the impact of the “so-called Third Industrial Revolution—of the computer, the Internet, and e-commerce…has been modest”—even “disappointing.” The simple truth, Wolf contends, is that “new technologies bring good and bad,” adding that the most important thing is to “believe we can shape the good and manage the bad.”

The Coming Robot Dystopia

Carnegie Mellon’s Illah Reza Nourbakhsh takes on the “deep, sometimes uncomfortable questions” that inevitably accompany the “robotic revolution.” Robotic technologies will “unquestionably advance human life” but will also “involve dramatic tradeoffs” that could engender “a collective identity crisis over what it means to be human.” The widening gap between “robot capability and robot regulation” will “test the boundaries of our ethical and legal frameworks with increasing audacity.” But the field of robotics is failing to address this problem. “Research institutes, universities, and the authorities that regulate them must help ensure that people trained to design and build intelligent machines also receive a rigorous education in ethics,” Nourbakhsh urges. “Inventors must beginto combine technological ingenuity with sociologi­cal awareness, and governments need to design institutions and processes that will help integrate new, artificial agents into society.”   

The Next Safety Net

As digital tools and robots increasingly perform the jobs that people once held, the world will witness “a crisis for modern welfare states,” assert Nicolas Colin, former French civil servant and cofounder of an investment firm, and Bruno Palier, research director at the Center for European Studies. Unless “social policy evolves,” they write, “automation and digitization will aggravate inequality and leave many workers worse off than before.” The answer? More countries should turn to “flexicurity”: the “flexible security” systems pioneered by Nordic states in the late twentieth century, through which governments “guarantee citizens access to health care, housing, education and training, and the like on a universal basis without regard to their employment status,” making it easier for people to switch or lose jobs and for governments to deregulate labor markets.


Also in the issue: countering Islamic extremism; talking to the Taliban in Afghanistan; the strategy behind the animal-welfare movement; the surprising good news in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; energy politics in Asia; and reforming humanitarian aid.


A Problem From Heaven

“In the war of ideas, words matter,” insists Ayaan Hirsi Ali of the Harvard Kennedy School, as she criticizes President Barack Obama’s use of “violent extremism” over “radical Islam” to describe the motivations of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. “It is time to drop euphemisms and verbal contortions” and recognize that “a battle for the future of Islam is taking place between reformers and reactionaries.” For Hirsi Ali, the U.S. government, along with charitable foundations, should side with the former, “stop publicly whitewashing unreformed Islam,” and start backing reformers to prevent the use of “textual prescriptions and religious dogma to justify murder and enslavement.”  

Islamic Scripture Is Not the Problem

William McCants of the Brookings Institution challenges Hirsi Ali, calling her “profoundly wrong when she argues that Islamic Scripture causes Muslim terrorism and thus that the U.S. government should fund Muslim dissidents to reform Islam.” He contends that although “the darker passages of Islamic Scripture endorse violence,” religious texts do not lead to terrorism, so reforming religious thought will not end terrorism. This “faulty causal chain” plagues Hirsi Ali’s reasoning, McCants asserts, adding that some of the reformers she suggests backing desire societies where religious conservatives are “locked up or legally prohibited from spreading their ideas,” which he says is tantamount to “intolerance dressed up as liberalism.”

Time to Negotiate in Afghanistan

In what James Dobbins of the RAND Corporation and Carter Malkasian of the Center for Naval Analyses call a “heartening step,” “Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Afghan Taliban have made unexpected strides toward talks.” Negotiations top Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s agenda, and “Pakistan and China both appear willing to help jump-start the process.” The authors urge Washington to “seize the moment” and “employ a mix of carrots and sticks while remaining committed to Afghanistan’s security.”

The Long Road to Animal Welfare

“American history has witnessed a progressive extension of moral concern along with declining violence and cruelty,” begins Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States. And although “Americans have become masters of distancing themselves from these more unpleasant uses of animals,” there are “grounds for optimism”—Australia, Canada, South Africa, and the European Union have all adopted policies to end animal cruelty. Drawing on his experience with the animal-welfare movement, Pacelle explains how activists achieve most when they are “smart and opportunistic about what to fight for and how.” He concludes, “there is no reason why our society cannot combine moral agency with technological and social innovation to eliminate cruelty to animals as an ordinary part of life.”

The Death and Life of the Two-State Solution

The two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has run out of steam. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won reelection thanks in part to his pledge that the Palestinians would never get a state so long as he was in power, and disillusioned younger Palestinians are increasingly pushing for citizenship in a “single, binational state.” “Ironically,” note Grant Rumley, of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and Amir Tibon, of Walla!, an Israeli news website, “it is precisely the death of the two-state solution that may turn out to be its revival.” Confronted with Palestinian demands for civil liberties and voting rights, “Israeli leaders may come to realize that however scared they are of a two-state solution, a one-state solution could be even worse.” But this sovereign state will not resemble “the one [Palestinians] have demanded for the last two decades. Instead of following the 1967 borders, its outline will be based on Israel’s security and demo­graphic concerns.”

Go East, Young Oilman

“Most observers agree that the United States, propelled by its boom in oil and gas production, is becoming increasingly central to global energy,” notes CFR fellow Michael Levi. But, he continues, “when future historians reflect on the ongoing transformation of the global energy landscape…Asia will feature at least as prominently, and interactions between the two sides of the Pacific will prove most important of all.” Levi urges Washington to “come to grips with this reality if it wants to develop an effective energy strategy; if it fails to, the full promise of the U.S. energy revo­lution will be left unfulfilled, and many of the world’s biggest energy challenges will remain unmet.”

Improving Humanitarian Aid

The humanitarian sector “is struggling to cope with new realities, and there is a growing gulf between the needs of people affected by crises and the help they are receiving.” And although “more resources would help,” David Miliband and Ravi Gurumurthy of the International Rescue Committee stress the need for a new strategy, calling on donors to “undertake reforms that seek to double the productivity of aid spending.” This will require “significant shifts in practices and assumptions,” cutting “layers of bureaucracy,” and improving transparency.


In the issue’s book review section, the New Yorker’s Jill Lepore labels Jonathan Zimmerman’s Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education “unpersuasive.” His “patchy” account of feminist contributions to sex education, she argues, overlooks the way that “American ideas not about sex but about gender” have informed contemporary sex education. For Lepore, Zimmerman’s historical approach “provides critical insights” but suffers from “grave limitations”: his research is largely limited to English-language sources, and the book “gives the false impression that” the United States is at the center of debates over sex education.

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Foreign Affairs, published by the Council on Foreign Relations since 1922, is an independent magazine of analysis and commentary on foreign policy and international affairs. In recent biannual surveys, Foreign Affairs has been ranked among the top ten most influential media outlets by the independent research firm Erdos & Morgan.

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