The machines are getting smarter. They can now recognize us, carry on conversations, and perceive complex details about the world around them. This is just the beginning.
As computers become more human-like, many worry that robots and algorithms will displace people. And they are right to. But just as crucial is the question of how machine progress will change our perceptions of human abilities.
Once a job can be done by a computer, it changes the way people think about the nature of that job. Let me give you an example. Travel with me, if you will, back to the year 1985. Here we are in Baltimore, Maryland. It’s Christmastime.
Hutzler’s Department Store is all twinkle lights and glass ornaments. Somewhere among the festive plaid tablecloths and polished silver are Tinsel and Beau—two full-blown animatronic talking reindeer. Tinsel’s frosted in glitter and Beau’s in a top hat. I’m one of the children lined up to greet them.
Baltimoreans may remember Hutzler’s as a beautiful old-fashioned department store, once known for its extravagant window displays and ornate façade. (The flagship store closed in 1989.) It was celebrated for its traditions, but also for its innovations. Hutzler’s installed the city’s first escalator in the 1930s, a modern convenience that it touted in advertisements.
So it made sense that Hutzler’s would also have such impressive animatronic reindeer. I thought of them recently when I was watching a video demonstration of Handle, the new Boston Dynamics robot that can wheel around with alarming swiftness and jump four feet into the air. Boston Dynamics also made a robot reindeer once—and, well, this is how you fall into an internet rabbit hole. Next thing I know, I’m searching the web for evidence of a faint childhood memory: a pair of beloved robotic reindeer from Baltimore in the 1980s.