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Drinking Coffee with Stop the Robots, SXSW’s Anti-Robot Protesters

Jason O. Gilbert
Technology Editor
Yahoo Tech

Adam Mason, a spokesperson for Stop the Robots. (Photo via YouTube/Infowars)

AUSTIN, Texas –– Adam Mason is explaining the purpose of Stop the Robots, a new and suddenly noteworthy group of techno-skeptic Austinites, when he notices something strange about my coffee cup. At most Starbucks locations, one’s name is scribbled onto the cup by hand, with a Sharpie; at this Starbucks, my name has been typed into a computer and then printed onto a sticker, which has been affixed to my caramel macchiato. 

“People at coffee shops create an excellent atmosphere, and there’s a person behind the counter that cares,” Mason laments. “I guess we’ve already gotten past writing your name on the cup. That’s a little less human.”

The push and pull between humans and technological systems, and the ways in which they should coexist, is at the heart of Stop the Robots. The group is a collective of 15 to 20 undergraduates at the University of Texas at Austin who have concerns about the future of technology and artificial intelligence; its website states that the group is “dedicated to using technology for good and understanding the true risks that artificial intelligence poses to humanity.”

At this year’s South by Southwest, Stop the Robots truly started. On Saturday, in the midst of SXSW, the group’s members put on matching blue T-shirts and marched on the Austin Convention Center with signs urging spectators to “Stop the Robots” and be wary of AI. 

Photo via Christopher Zara on Twitter

The march was a huge, almost hysterical, success, a disruption in the original sense of the word. At this hyper-connected convention, where technology is king and panelists wax romantic about our ultra-automated future, Stop the Robots struck a major chord, if only as a dissenting view. The small protest won articles in publications as varied as USA Today, TechCrunch, and Infowars; Fox News ran a television segment about the group. 

Mason has emerged as Stop the Robots’ spokesperson, but he did not identify himself as its leader; he hesitated to even call Stop the Robots an organization, given its newness and, well, disorganization. Mason is an undergraduate at the University of Texas majoring in computer programming. He has long brown hair that drops down to his shoulders and wears a full beard and mustache; his T-shirt on this day paid homage to Free Software, Free Society, an important treatise in the open software movement written in 2002 by the activist and programmer Richard Stallman. 

The members of Stop the Robots, in other words, aren’t the hippie freaks or flag-waving Luddites you might imagine. 

“Everyone thinks it’s an anti-technology group at first glance,” Mason told me, “and that’s kind of what we’re going for. But we’re actually for technology. We’re technologists that love technology and we foresee a future where technology is necessary for mankind.”

The goal of Stop the Robots is not to destroy every robot both current and future, but rather to urge the makers of these technologies to ponder the implications of the systems they are creating. It is a group of technologists who found much wisdom in recent sentiments voiced by Tesla founder Elon Musk and the scientist Stephen Hawking. Musk warned that our biggest existential threat was artificial intelligence; Hawking said that artificial intelligence had the potential to end mankind. 

“We have to be careful that we don’t let AI, or technology, take over human roles in a way that is counterproductive to humanity,” Mason said. “And we have to figure out a way to use technology at a grand scale to actually create jobs.”

What’s next for Stop the Robots as an organization is unclear. It has already made its mark, however small, on SXSW, and it clearly has momentum in the press and in the public spirit. Mason has received inquiries from all over the world asking how to join in or start local chapters; he does not view this as a full-time job, however, as he plans to move to Silicon Valley to work on a startup after graduation this spring. 

Stop the Robots doesn’t have an advocacy path or set of legislation it wants passed; at this point, it is more of a reminder of a sickness than a prescription. Even if it folds, though, Stop the Robots has already elucidated a vision for the coming years, a guidepost for the creation of next-generation devices and systems. 

“How do we think about the future,” Mason asked, summing up the raison d’être for Stop the Robots,  “and keep human morality tied to technology?”

Mason excused himself from the Starbucks; he was scheduled to speak to the documentarian right after his interview with me.

“I’ve got a ton of stuff going on,” he smiled. He seemed overwhelmed and surprised by the attention. “It’s an extreme way to talk about a serious issue, when you say ‘Stop the Robots,’ but it worked.”