Time for Human-Centered Electro-Mechanical Technology (HCEMT)

Robert D. Atkinson June 7, 2021
June 7, 2021

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As electro-mechanical technology (EM) transforms our world, it is critical that the technology (e.g., motors, solenoids, relays, and switches) be designed for humans to meet human needs. That is why ITIF has launched the HCEMT movement.

To paraphrase one technologist: “No technology is more reflective of its creators than [EM]. It has been said that there are no ‘machine’ values at all, in fact, machine values are human values.  A human-centered approach to [EM] means these machines don’t have to be our competitors, but partners in securing our well-being. However autonomous our technology becomes, its impact on the world — for better or worse — will always be our responsibility.”

That is why the EM movement demands that big corporations put people, not profits, first in designing and implementing EM. For example, instead of designing automatic elevators, companies like Otis should design the operator back into the loop, building in mechanisms like doors that open with the operator turning a crank. Similarly, instead of designing automatic bowling pinsetters – a technology that led to mass unemployment and the immiseration of tens of thousands of unfortunate pinsetters, many of them young people, companies like Brunswick should have designed machines that work with the pinsetters. Perhaps machines that cleared the pins automatically, but let the ball boys use their human skills and creativity to set the pins back up. And what about AT&T, that corporate behemoth, working with its division Western Electric that substituted electro-mechanical switches for human-centered telephone operators operated switches, most of which were operated by women? What were these women supposed to do once a cold and impersonal machine connected our telephone conversations?

To paraphrase one leading scholar, “while [EM] technical systems present a veneer of objectivity and neutrality…  they are designed to serve and intensify existing systems of power… these new infrastructures of EM reflect the beliefs and perspectives of a small group of people and serve the interests of the few at the expense of the many.”

Case in point, the big profit-hungry car companies that took away human agency by designing and building EM systems like power steering, power brakes, and even automatic starters. Large corporations continually treat people like passive consumers that they control. Where was the bottom-up, democratically-controlled design process that let the people decide if they wanted such “help” for their cars?

That’s why to paraphrase one organization, HCEMT “proposes to design shared prosperity targets to be taken up by the [EM] industry either voluntarily or with regulatory encouragement. The targets would constitute commitments by [EM] companies to non-destruction of good jobs and would help develop [EM] that supports an expansion of access to good jobs.”

As such, we call on all corporations to stop improving productivity and stop using EM technologies to automate jobs.

(Of course, this is satire. But it describes the current state of the responsible or “human-centered” AI movement, which rejects the use of AI to automate work. Imagine if America was subject to a movement like this when past technology waves, like EM, were in their heyday. We’d be a society that would be significantly poorer, with many more hard, tiresome, low-paying jobs. We can’t afford to go down this path today. Responsible AI can mean many things, but it should mean boosting productivity, including by “destroying jobs” (e.g., automation).