In a rarely seen video about robotics optimistically called “The Future is Now,” William Shatner takes viewers through a 19 minute tour of the latest in industrial robotics. It’s got everything one wants in an educational video from 1984: grainy montages, a beep-boop soundtrack, nonsensical vaporwave graphics, and an overall look like it was once rolled into a classroom on a giant TV cart.
The video, a project of educational content company AIMS Media, was uploaded to the Internet Archive in 2016 but received few views. The Computer History Archives Project uploaded it to Youtube on Monday, to similarly little fanfare, but it’s a piece of eighties computing nostalgia that’s worth revisiting.
The video opens with Shatner giving an awkward autograph to a small C3PO-type robot—a little rolling can with a cheery voice that beeps its thanks. Then comes a walkthrough of the capabilities of Cincinnati Milicron’s T3 (for “The Tomorrow Tool”) industrial robot, the first commercially available computer-controlled industrial robot. When Shatner showed off this “steel collar” worker, as he introduces it, it was a feat of cutting-edge engineering. Today, it’s a dinosaur in a museum.
Shatner then takes the viewer on a tour of the National Bureau of Standards, renamed four years later to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, to see vision-equipped robots inspecting gears. Three years earlier, the NBS released a report from a workshop of engineers and researchers that heavily focused on vision-equipped robots and how to make the burgeoning field more commercially appealing. “There was a strong consensus among all participants that simple vision is the first priority for research and development efforts,” they wrote.
“There’s concern today: Do these roots pose some kind of threat to human employment?” Shatner rhetorically asks. “Robotics seem to point the way toward increased production and improved product quality without corresponding increases in manufacturing costs... If that should come to pass, why, there ought to be more employment opportunities in the expanding economy, not less.” In 30 years’ time, we’d find that industrial robots actually do reduce wages and jobs—one “steel collar worker” in a local labor market “coincides with an employment drop of 5.6 workers,” according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. And these robots would be the cause of numerous warehouse worker injuries and hospitalizations, as corporations raced to use them to improve their bottom lines and forced human workers to try to keep up.
At the end of the video, Shatner hints at artificial intelligence as being the next breakthrough on the horizon for robotics. But the Shatner of 1984, who could imagine flying around the galaxy and battling aliens on other planets as Captain James T. Kirk, probably couldn’t imagine what would come in the next 30 years—that he’d eventually upload his memories to an “artificial intelligence” and become the oldest guy in space.