The Invisible Robots

When we think about robots, we think about humanoid devices -- things that look, walk and talk like people. Some of the robots coming out of Boston Dynamics are absolutely amazing. But long before we find ourselves in the world of Skynet or “RoboCop,” we’re certainly more likely to be facing a breed of robots that could be immediately life-changing without a human form.

HBO Max is now screening the Oscar-nominated film “Please Hold.” The 18-minute film is definitely worth watching.

So here’s the plot. Mateo Torres (played by Erick Lopez) is a fast-food worker approached by a drone on the street and informed that he’s being arrested. He’s not told what the crime is and no one can offer an explanation. He puts on the handcuffs and is taken to a fully automated jail, where he is locked in a cell and then told that he can either plead guilty to a crime or hire a lawyer remotely,for $10,000.



Pretty much for the whole of the movie, Torres is trapped in his cell, keeps paying for outbound calls and running out of money, which means he can’t call his lawyer. In the end he is able to hire a lawyer who looks at his case for about 30 seconds, says “Oh, again.” Then the screen in Torres’ cell says “you’ve been released,” and he’s sent out the door. But there’s never any clarity about why the robot arrested him, or why he’s trapped in the cell.

Filmmakers said they wanted the film to be “haunting,” and it most certainly is.

Meanwhile, the New York City fire department is using a robot from Boston Dynamics called Spot to fight fires in very hazardous conditions. Somehow the idea of a mechanized automated device saving people from burning buildings and putting out fires seems like a robot we want, while the drone in “Please Hold” is one we don’t.

Unfortunately, in real life, we can’t make that distinction.

For examples, there are robots that have no physical incarnation that we deal with every day. The robot that reads your résumé and determines whether or not you will even get a chance to be considered for a job, the one that reads your insurance claim and determines automatically, without human intervention, whether or not you should be paid for the damage that was done to your car in an accident. The robot that reads your doctor’s prescription and determines whether or not your insurance will allow you to get name-brand medication or a generic.

Some robots you don’t think about, but are increasingly taking over your life. Here’s what they can decide:

Whom you’ll date. Researchers call this "overriding users' decisional autonomy." Your dates are already prefiltered, because dating apps make decisions based on previous matchmaking,

If you can eat out during the pandemic. The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency created a pandemic prediction algorithm that state leadership can and are using to determine when and which businesses should be allowed to reopen.

If you can get into college. A Washington Post report found 44 schools use prediction software to give applicants a score out of 100 for its admissions process. The score considers a student's application using tests, home address, transcripts, and websites they've visited. This is super-creepy.

If you can rent an apartment. Robot software can determine how much rent you pay. According to a New York Times article, background check software uses algorithms to create a profile of a tenant candidate that landlords use to decide which applicants to pick.

If you’ll land that job.  When you click "quick apply" on Zip Recruiter, the application floods what used to be a human inbox. So employees put a robot between you and a human review. Of course, it has to make decisions, often favoring certain applicants based on their name, gender, ethnicity, and other demographics. Even your cover letter is first read by a robot.

When you go to work. If you’re a gig worker at, say, Starbucks or Target, your weekly schedule of hours is done by a robot. At Uber, robots decide which drivers get the best rides, and therefore the best tips. The algorithm is looking for drivers with a spotless record and the best customer reviews.

While you may think the humanoid robot will be the machine that takes your job or patrols your neighborhood, that’s not where it ends. Every day, in ways large and small, robots are running your life. And while you may think you can just punch “O” on the phone keypad to get to a human operator, increasingly that option is being removed. Robot decisions are often final, and you don’t know when they’re being made.

“Please Hold” is a sharp piece of film-making, but don’t confuse it with entertainment. That it most certainly is not.

Next story loading loading..