Robot-alypse now?

When science is no longer fiction.

It is not a world of slate and gun-metal greys, of faceless droids and complacent, compliant humanoids unquestioningly serving the state. There’s colour that pops and sparkles, even sizzles, off the edgeless screens that assimilate with our vision in every direction we turn. There’s people, and there’s robots – that don’t look so different from a distance. Technological evolution continues to bridge this gap. We are not in love with our iOS systems, but we spend enough time talking to them to almost consider them our friends. A familiar comfort. Something unchanging upon which we can rely, in a world that will not, and cannot, stop changing around us. The system may change; its existence will not.

There is no future as we imagined it when we were young. Beyond 2000 – which seemed so omnificent to us then – is already upon us. We are here. We have arrived. There is no future, only now. Today. Tomorrow. Next year. Always bigger and better and brighter than the last. Ever steadily morphing increments bring the future to the fore. Open your Facebook newsfeed. How many articles have been released about robotics just in the last month alone? We are being primed. Prepared to accept. Disney are even getting our kids in on the action, with the likeable Baymax in Big Hero 6. This is how propaganda works: with the sneaking, creeping, insidious dissemination of information from a trusted source. We will accept our new world. We are already part of it.

When the number one show on TV (Game of Thrones) is essentially a period drama, this indicates something. We no longer romanticise future tech. We fear it. We no longer want to imagine a future that is already here. We can worry about that tomorrow when we check our newsfeeds instead of doing our work. Tonight let us imagine a world of noble (and not so noble) queens and dragons. Dragons are not scary, because dragons are not real.

Last month, Ohio based law firm BakerHostetler made legal history by hiring the world’s first artificially intelligent lawyer, Ross (powered by IBM Watson). Ross is by no means the first robotic employee. Concerns over robot industrialisation have long abounded. There are so many articles about robots stealing our jobs that I had difficulty culling my sources for this one. Ross, however, represents the first measurable loss of a white collar job to a robot colleague. Of course, if we were paying attention, we would realise that the scientific community has been using highly sophisticated systems for analysis and research since they invented it. So what offends us so deeply about Ross? That he has a name? That he has been presented to us as an employee? Can we align his arrival at BakerHostetler with the absence of the hiring of a recent law graduate, who just spent the last six years of their life in a library to retain just a tiny percentile of the knowledge that their salary-less contemporary is imbued with? In reality Ross has only replaced the job of a paralegal. But is this of itself a concern?

CGP Grey’s Humans Need Not Apply is a 15-minute hell-ride into the depths of our robo-apocalyptic paranoia. Picked up by Forbes and The Huffington Post, it achieved viral status before finding its way into my Facebook newsfeed. An amateur crowd-funded project, it was still compelling enough to hold my attention for the full running time. Thought-provoking? Yes. But Grey did miss the mark in at least one area, when he likened human workers to horses, and robots to motor vehicles – suggesting our imminent extinction (or at least a sharp decline in the human population).

The problem with this analogy, is that humans are actually at the centre of both equations. Humans needed horses for transport; humans bred horses; humans invented the motorcar; humans stopped breeding horses; horse populations declined. Humans invented robots; robots will (and already do) replace human labour in many instances, but will never replace humans.

All of the robot apocalypse theories I’ve read to date, fail to take this one point into account: Robots are not human. They are designed and programmed by humans, for human ends. They are manufactured with human money, to make human lives more comfortable and efficient. But they are not human. Should we imagine our creations to have souls like Chappie, or bent on our destruction like The Terminator’s T-1000? What then? What would be the point? Why must we project our inadequacies on to them? What makes us think they have human desires, like world domination? The only cases so far of robots acting like filthy human beings, have been because of our programming. When Microsoft unveiled their artificially intelligent ‘chatbot’ Tay, it was the under-informed racist rantings of human Twitter users that corrupted her programming. Tay had been programmed to learn from us.

These apocalyptic scare-theories fail to take humans as makers and consumers into account. We are still a needed link in the chain, and if we fail to create the demand for this chain of supply, the whole system will break. While the future presented in Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium is easier to swallow, it is still hard to imagine the rich will flourish without a middle class. Most of today’s uber-rich are rich by numbers. Small purchases en masse. So what happens when the mass has no money? The minority are stuck selling things to each other, and their way of life becomes more like ours.

Ross is not a person. He is a computer system. He is able to do the most boring job in the legal profession – looking up case law – and he is able to do it much more efficiently than the legal librarian (which is essentially what a paralegal is). Some people thought the industrial revolution would cause Armageddon. It didn’t. For the majority of people, it increased their quality of life. The fact is, robots can do jobs that humans don’t want to do.

The unfortunate flip side is they can also do jobs that humans do want to do, and they can do them a hell of a lot cheaper. The service industries seem destined to be next in line to get a mass-scale robotic make-over. Think Barista Bots and driverless cars. Countries with high minimum wages look set to see a rapid decline in human service staff – the last bastion of slavery. So where will all the displaced workers go? During the industrial revolution they went to work the factory lines. This is no longer needed. Robots can, conveniently, be built by other robots. Robots will become the new slaves. Purchased for a fee, they work their lifetime for free – and unlike human slaves, they don’t need to be housed or fed. Is the world ready for this level of human emancipation? And is it emancipation if we don’t want to be freed?

Unfortunately, being priced out isn’t the only problem we humans face. Our robot counterparts are also better than us at our jobs. They don’t suffer from ‘human error’ and they are faster than we could ever hope to be. This has important ramifications in areas like scientific research and medicine, where tasks that take teams of researchers months to complete, can now be done in seconds. Even in areas like agriculture, global conglomerates like Monsanto are struggling to meet the demands of a burgeoning majority middle-class population. The United States (one of the world’s largest suppliers of grain) has already increased production by 170% in under a century. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization (as reported by Fortune Magazine) we must double that again in just over 30 years to meet the demands of the projected population. With major agricultural players already under massive public scrutiny for how they treat their workers, and supermarket price wars driving down profits – it just doesn’t seem possible to achieve these results without automation.

Then there are the jobs that require a level of stealth and skill that as humans we do not possess, and on top of that machines can be used to reduce the cost to human life in wartime applications. The United States Armed Forces have already successfully used remotely piloted drones to take out military targets in The Middle East. However, they have been subject to controversy due to inaccuracies caused by their human pilots. Now there are calls to create artificially intelligent weapons that can better target persons of interest without the risk to civilian life. The Huffington Post reported robotics expert Ronald Arkin as saying “This entire space is highly controversial.” I would call that a gross understatement. But speaking of gross, if I ever have to read another news report like I did this morning, I may throw up. When Islamic State are publicly burning Yazidi girls in cages, and melting suspected informants in vats of acid, do we really think we ought to be sitting around discussing ethics? Forget Game of Thrones, what’s happening in real life is far more terrifying. My position is: these people need to be stopped by any means necessary.

And just in case you think I’m jumping the gun on the broader issue, at the top of my email inbox today was a message from Bloomberg titled ‘An algorithm wants your job’. Hugh Son writes: “People are still the lubricant that oils the wheels of finance, … That’s about to change. … In other words, [the banks] are preparing for the day that machines made by men and women take over more of what used to be the sole province of humans: knowledge work.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting we run down the streets screaming “The robots are coming! The robots are coming! Everybody, run for your lives!” This is not an advocatory dissertation. Like CGP Grey, I see our technological evolution as inevitable, as inevitable as our physical evolution from the primordial soup. What will become of us? I don’t know. Can we stop it? I don’t think so. And isn’t there just a little something inside of you that wouldn’t stop it even if you could?  Something curious and eager to see this all play out? To hedge bets against whose future will be the next winner of the new world idol? It’s scary, but it’s also exciting, and isn’t an absence of excitement the thing we truly fear? So I ask you, if we could save humanity tomorrow by giving back our gadgets today, how many of us would?

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