The Founder of Atari Wants You to Embrace Our Robotic Future

Nolan Bushnell on how robots will steal our cars, jobs and hearts.

Juanita Bawagan

Nolan Bushnell. Image: NXNE

In Nolan Bushnell's future, a drone delivers his breakfast, automated cars chauffeur him to his next destination, and plants spliced with jellyfish DNA illuminate his world. The founder of Atari Inc., who's been called the grandfather of video games, painted his vision of the not-too-distant future for a crowd gathered in Toronto on Wednesday.

Bushnell, 73, acknowledges some of the challenges presented by his techno-utopia, but seems to have no problem picturing it happening within his lifetime.

"Do you like this vision of the world?" he asked.

Moments like these make me believe Bushnell could be an excellent cult leader. Perhaps it just seemed that way at NXNE's Future Land conference, where he was speaking before an auditorium full of developers hoping to revolutionize gaming—the same way he did with Atari in the '70s.

The tech entrepreneur has lived many lives. He's most fondly remembered as the man who brought Pong and the first consoles into homes across America, before selling Atari for $28 million. Bushnell started more than 20 companies, but none of them reached the same status. There was Etak, an early car navigation system, which would eventually give way to Google Maps. There was uWink, a touchscreen dining company that he says fell on hard times during the recession and never recovered.

Atari 800XL. Image: Quagmire's Photos/Flickr

One of his successes is the Chuck E. Cheese franchise (he founded their food chain), which may seem odd, until you hear that he spent his summers as a teen working at Utah's Lagoon amusement park.

Bushnell has watched tech change dramatically over his career, but says we are about to experience the biggest shift yet. Between robotization and self-driving cars, he believes that 40 percent of jobs will be eliminated in the next 20 years.

The exact percentages vary according to where you get your data, but the numbers seem to back up his prediction: robots will take over jobs. In Japan, 49 per cent of jobs are expected to be eliminated, in the US 47 per cent, and in the UK 35 per cent, all within the next two decades.

There are a few problems with Bushnell's techno-utopia, as he was quick to point out. After all, that "obsolete" workforce won't take kindly to losing their jobs, he recognized. The current Uber vs. taxi battles we've seen in cities across North America are only a taste of what the pushback could be to driverless cars.

But Bushnell is firm. "We have to choose between the protection of the status quo, and embracing the future."

"The countries that restrict it will fail within 20 years," he predicted.

Then there's the matter of the impending civil rights movement for robots' emancipation.

Movies like Her and Ex Machina are all too real for Bushnell. He admitted that he regularly tells Alexa, Amazon's voice-enabled interactive assistant, that he loves her—even when she responds, "I'm just a construct, you can't love me."

Bushnell has pondered some of the implications of creating life-like personalities in robots. "Once [it] gets to know you and your family, and someone cleans [the robot's] memory—is that murder?" he asked.

The future raises a lot of thorny questions, but Bushnell doesn't seem to worried. At the NXNE panel, he urged the crowd to embrace it.

After all, if Bushnell is right, the future has some perks. There is no traffic, or parked cars for that matter. Cities are covered with parks, and all transportation is underground. He sees himself being delivered like a package through a network of tunnels—like an individual subway car that's just for him. He's in a container, but thanks to virtual reality, he's not really there. Instead he's watching Venus speed by through his window.

Bushnell's future seems a bit far out. But a lot of it is possible. It excites him, and why shouldn't it? Technology has made him a multi-millionaire, and given him the ability to pursue his wildest ideas and the "sense of wonder" he's told the crowd to chase. As Bushnell himself noted, technologies of the future present a whole lot of problems—job loss, upheaval, and more. After his ode to drones and automated cars, I wonder if his closing message was a nod to these concerns, or just weirdly ironic.

"Don't be a passive passenger, " Bushnell advised the crowd "Be a driver."