Will a Robot Steal My Job? review: Amusement, alarm and appeals for calm

Anne-Marie Tomchak brings a reassuringly human touch to this wide-ranging documentary

Science has always promised to either vastly improve life, or radically foreshorten it; making it as likely that we will live to be 200 or die next week in a nuclear holocaust initiated by an intemperate Twitter exchange.

As part of RTÉ's Science Week programming, comes a wide-ranging documentary that outlines the persuasive case for human obsolescence. Entitled, with understandable paranoia, Will a Robot Steal My Job? (RTE One, Monday, 9.35pm) it begins – as all documentaries now must – with the elegant camera work of a robot. In this case it's an aerial drone shot, gliding high above a human running purposefully through leafy nature.

This is presenter Anne-Marie Tomchak, the UK editor of digital publication Mashable, and suddenly the drone itself hovers into the shot, like a menacing bird of prey. She stares it down. “I’d love to say that I could never be replaced by a robot,” says Tomchak. The author of “This dog and dolphin’s love for each other will warm your heart” may have reason to worry. (Ok, that’s an unfair example.) Tomchak proceeds to make a vigorous case for the rise of the machine in an age of increasing automation and codes that invisibly shape our lives.

Engaged, personable and responsive, Tomchak is a glowing advertisement for humanity. She becomes disbelieving and giddy when a Tesla’s onboard computer takes control of her driving (and attentive to the sobering implications for the future livelihoods of taxi and truck drivers), then implausibly excited when a football game in Oxford ends in a draw, pitting the wits of flesh-and-blood sportswriters against the formula-filling inanities of robojournalists.


Encouragingly, the documentary supplies its own stirring model of human inefficiency, gathering far more material than it can easily accommodate – a refreshing example when so many other documentary hours seem overstretched.

Tomchak has her portrait drawn by twitchy mechanical minions, rendering her likeness in scribbly biro

Tomchak concentrates on the surprising encroachments of Artificial Intelligence on intellectual and creative pursuits. The comedian Neil Delamere gives a cautious but generous critique to a stand up routine conducted between a comedy boffin and an AI improviser. A nervous Tomchak has her portrait drawn by twitchy mechanical minions, rendering her likeness in scribbly biro. The tone oscillates between amusement, alarm and restorative pleas for calm.

“AI threatens to transform how we all live our lives,” says Tomchak, perhaps one of the last of a generation of tech sceptics. Interviews with assorted tech gurus and futurologists predict mass unemployment and advise that humans need to concentrate on physically dextrous work (something involving stairs, perhaps?). Others downplay this fascination with robots as a fetish for novelty, and when Tomchak’s investigation strays into an eerie sexbot factory, that becomes hard to contradict. (Whose jobs are these dehumanised pleasure droids stealing?)

Like them, however, the robots seem finally like canvases for our own projected fantasies; either slaves, threats or long-awaited saviours. The show ends with a sense of artificial positivity, like a Tesla abruptly correcting its worrying trajectory, featuring a chorus of tech-savvy school children.

Asked about their future career plans, they volunteer everything from coder to robot maintenance provider to blogger. A lone voice suggests a surprisingly analogue alternative. “I want to be a bounty hunter,” he says. The robots, you fear, may have already won.