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I was right to warn we need to protect our brains for a robotic future

The New York Times just had a piece that makes a point I made in 2011, Rick Telander writes: Our brains are more important than ever as tech evolves. True then. True now.

The New York Times just had a piece that makes a point I made in 2011, Rick Telander writes: Our brains are more important than ever as tech evolves. True then. True now.

Eight years ago, I wrote a sports column for the Chicago Sun-Times, headlined “Brain against the machines,” warning athletes about willfully risking brain damage in football or other head-banging sports, then trying to compete in a future with robots — robotics, if you will — in a workplace in which physical strength and athletic skill would be irrelevant and brainpower and education and innovation would rule.

The column was widely mocked on social media, reaching a zenith of sorts on Deadspin, which wrote that the column “is so full of raving, delusional paranoia about some impending tyranny that he might as well be on mushrooms or in the Tea Party.”

I found the Tea Party part amusing. But was I a nut? I stood by the column then. And do now. More than ever.

I’m hopeful most people know about the advances of technology and robotics and artificial intelligence and the way those things are disrupting the workforce. For decades, most economists declared such progress is good for mankind and does not destroy jobs — or, if it does, not for long, as new jobs based around the tech advances pop up.

Also, it is always good when lousy jobs disappear, and people have more leisure time or someday might be freed altogether from working.

My column was not railing against technological progress but rather a warning that human brains are going to be more important than ever in a future in which algorithms and the machines they support will make most things we do for decent-paying jobs obsolete or wildly selective.

There was an article this past week in The New York Times by economics reporter Eduardo Porter: “Tech Is Splitting the U.S. Work Force in Two,” which makes the point I was trying to make in 2011. His premise: “A small group of well-educated professionals enjoys rising wages, while most workers toil in low-wage jobs with few chances to advance.”

He writes that if you’re not getting ahead in this modern work era, you’re falling behind. Basically, if you’re not smart and well-educated and forward-thinking, good luck out there.

My added thoughts are that if you have diminished your brainpower from dangerous sports, have accumulated concussions that have wounded you or caused — God forbid — the beginnings of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE, the brain-wasting disease found in some longtime football players, then that is not something you should ever say was worth it.

In 2011, speaking primarily of football, which I played and love, I wrote: “It is wrong to continue on with certain rituals, even joyous ones, that we previously thought were morally fine. At least, we shouldn’t continue them in the same way as before. You can ask me here why hockey fighting goes on, and I’ll say I have no idea.

“We live in a world that is progressing into a vast arena in which mankind has never lived, never even comprehended, the stadium of human-enhanced computer dominance. It is a place where intelligence, real or artificial, will be all.”

I asked how, in the light of this, we “could do dumb things, like let our heads get damaged continually and call it something like ringing a bell. In our new environment, how can anyone allow his or her IQ, or their children’s, to be lowered?”

A fair question then. A fair question now.

Porter writes about the disruption of new machines: “Economists have a hard time getting their heads around this. Steeped in the belief that technology inevitably leads to better jobs and higher pay, they long resisted the notion that the Luddites of the 19th century, who famously thrashed the weaving machines that were taking their jobs, might have had a point.”

The problem now is that increasingly only the elite can keep up with tech advances. Who needs an average thinker, even with the muscles of a young Schwarzenegger, when a robot can lift the same heavy boxes, without water breaks, 24 hours a day, without pay or complaint, and nobody cares if it can say, “I’ll be back!”

Writes Porter: “Some economists are reassessing their belief that technological progress lifts all boats and are beginning to worry about the new configuration of work. Recent research has concluded that robots are reducing demand for workers and weighing down wages… Some economists have concluded that the use of robots explains the decline in the share of national income going into workers’ paychecks.”

Automation is not going to stop. As renowned science writer Kevin Kelly put it in his book “What Technology Wants,” tech has “a mind of its own.”

Tech is on the move. Including AI, VR, robots, all that crazy stuff. Go ahead and bang your heads. But don’t say your nutty Uncle Rick didn’t warn you about it years ago.