Our Robots, Ourselves
Jim O’Loughlin (presented at Supper Club on 19 Sept. 2017)
So, maybe you’ve seen this movie: in the near-future, machines created by humans become so sophisticated that they achieve sentience, meaning that they are able to think independently and become conscious of their own identities. Very soon after, they decide that there is no need for so many people and begin a genocidal attack on humanity.
Or, maybe you’ve read this book: it takes place in a world in which the robots humans have created become so adept at laboring that there comes to be no need for most human workers. The result is a sophisticated consumer economy that nevertheless has mass unemployment and inequality.
Or, then again maybe you’re looking forward to the TV comedy about a world in which artificial intelligence has surpassed human intelligence and hilarity thus ensues.
Respectively, those are plot synopsis for the James Cameron-directed film Terminator, Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Piano Player, and a forthcoming FX series entitled Singularity, slated to be directed by Robert Downey, Jr., with Damon Wayans, Jr. and Amanda Lund.
However, those are also the scenarios underlying, respectively again, physicist Stephen Hawking’s recent concern in interviews about a rogue robot rebellion, the many current magazine and newspaper articles with titles like “Robots could take over 38% of U. S. jobs within 15 years,” and the multi-million dollar investments by the founders of Google and PayPal in biotech and computerized schemes to achieve immortality (Masunaga).
So, what happened? Did science fiction make predictions that turned out to be true? Should we worry about the robot apocalypse or, alternatively, start saving money for an immortal future in which our brains are uploaded to robot bodies?
Though this presentation is going to examine some recent advances, in the end, I am skeptical about claims of a looming robot revolution because they too neatly conform to the fears and fantasies that have long occupied human thought, particularly in regard to androids, a term used to describe robots with human features and characteristics. Instead of being concerned about a future dominated by robots or androids, I will encourage us to think in terms of cyborgs, a term used to describe creatures that blend human and robotic qualities. I’ll encourage us to think in terms of cyborgs not because that is what I think the future holds for us, but because that describes the creatures we are right now.
At our current point in history advances in the field of Artificial Intelligence are attracting a lot of interest and a lot of concern. Let’s think of this as the Watson moment, after the IBM computer that in 2011 was able to win Jeopardy in a competition against human champions. It was a remarkable accomplishment because Jeopardy seemed to require a level of understanding that had seemed beyond what computers could do. And our Watson moment did not occur in isolation but was part of a wave of technological advances, from the smartphone to the Human Genome Project, that have been met with similar reactions that combine enthusiasm and concern.
Of course, such concerns are not new, and with a little bit of historical distance they perhaps seem less monumental. Many of us will remember a different moment in time, what we can call the Deep Blue moment in 1997 when a different IBM computer defeated grandmaster Gary Kasparov in chess. Contemporaneous reporting on this match spoke of it as a paradigm-shifting event, as in the New York Times headline, “Computer Defeats Kasparov, Stunning the Chess Experts” In fact, Deep Blue was part of a wave of ambitious Artificial Intelligence research. But this was a wave that crashed amidst unrealistic expectations and predictions. Vernor Vinge predicted in 1993 that Singularity (the point at which computers would surpass human intelligence) would be reached by 2023, which is likely to be proven incorrect (Ford). A study of Digital Culture published as recently as 2008 claimed that “Artificial Intelligence, at least as it was originally understood, has been largely discredited” (Gere 223). Despite the growing importance of computers and digital technology around the turn of this century, artificial intelligence had come to be seen as a pipe dream rather than a serious pursuit. And, in the end, it is easy to forget that we live in a world where computers can beat humans at chess, and life still goes on.
However, at our current moment, in the era of big data, Artificial Intelligence is a hot topic again. As I speak, an enormous amount of resources are being invested by high tech companies such as Google, Apple, and Amazon in a new round of Artificial Intelligence research. A computer recently defeated a human in a game of Go, which had previously seemed beyond the capacity of machines. Never mind all of the once-science-fiction scenarios with which I opened this presentation.
All of which raises a reasonable question: do we have to worry about robots?
Well, here’s the news: robots are not just coming, they are already here. Advanced manufacturing uses any number of robotic devices that have sped up production processes, eliminating the need for human workers in many traditional manufacturing fields. Robots can vacuum rugs and retrieve merchandise in a warehouse. However, those are all different robots, designed for specific, predictable and repetitive purposes. They are not what we usually think of when we think of robots. Those seem to just be machines.
And, yes, robots are just machines. But when we think of robots, at least at the level of our fears and fantasies, what usually comes to mind would be better described as androids. Androids are robots that are designed to look like us and mimic human behavior. Androids are the ones that with varying degrees of sophistication, we fear replacing us. Androids could be us, but stronger, smarter version of us that are less prone to emotional decision making. When we think of robots, we are usually thinking of androids. But if robots are already here, androids are still very, very far away.
Take the issue of jobs. If there is a bottom line on this issue, it is that jobs that consist of repetitive motions done in controlled settings are ripe for robotization. This includes the kind of traditional manufacturing jobs that have already been in decline in fields like automotives or textiles, but in that category one also has to several white collar jobs such as those of accountants, agents and tellers.
However, there are real limits to what robots can do. As Michio Kakio points out, robots have bad eyesight and they don’t understand simple aspects of human behavior. They struggle mightily with unpredictable situations, be that unsteady terrain or unstable humans. There are plenty of non-repetitive jobs that will not only survive but thrive in the future, and they tend to involve regular interactions in unpredictable situations. These jobs would include blue collar professions such as landscaping, plumbing and police work, as well as creative class professions that may involve working with computers but for varying and irregular reasons.
Our fear of, or desire for, androids is misplaced. An Nicholas Carr has recently written, “The human nervous system is a marvel of physical control, able to sense and respond fluidly to an ever-changing environment. Achieving such agility with silicon and steel lies well beyond the reach of today’s engineers. Even the most advanced of our current automatons still get flustered by mundane tasks like loading a dishwasher or dusting knickknacks.”
Douglas Eck, a scientist on the Google Brain team, a cutting-edge AI research group states, “I think it’s unlikely to me that a machine-learning algorithm is going to come along and generate some transformative new way of doing art… And I think we’re just so, so, so far from this AI having a sense of what the world is really like. Like it’s just so, so far away.” (Metz)
So, yes, robots can take jobs, as they have long taken jobs, and I don’t want to minimize the effects of a job loss for an individual who has been supplanted from his or her career. But that is different than thinking that robots will take all jobs or that they will not also create new job categories. Historically speaking, it has been a sucker’s bet to think that technological innovations will eliminate jobs and work altogether. To give one example, in 1900 farmers made up 38% of the U. S. labor force. However, after more than a century of mechanized agriculture, farming accounts for less that 2% of the U. S. labor force. But that doesn’t mean that less food is grown or that there is a 36% decline in available jobs. (Farmers)
Instead, new job categories appear, particularly in fields that engage with emergent technology. Right now in the United States, there are more jobs in the solar power industry than there are in the coal industry. At UNI, it is not unusual for one of our graduates to move into an entry level position in website management or social media coordination, categories of work that did not even exist when I was in school.
When we talk about people, technology and intelligence, we have a tendency to keep moving the goalposts. Each new innovation, because it is new to us, seems revolutionary. But we quickly become accustomed to these advances and we learn to live with them, and we then redefine what we think of as non-machine human intelligence to exclude that which is done by computers. There may be some comfort in reestablishing the borders between humans and machines, but it only leaves us in a position to repeat the cycle, to be excited or terrified by the innovations of each age. There must be a better way to understand this complex and evolving relationship.
Now, the title of this presentation, as many of you probably realized right away, is a riff on the book, Our Bodies, Ourselves, perhaps one of the most influential feminist books ever, which, when first published in 1971, was groundbreaking for its forthright discussion of women’s health and sexuality. My use of this title is, of course, a pun (and hopefully a good one), but it is also a metaphor. Our Bodies, Ourselves allowed women to have a fuller sense of identity through understanding the materiality of their existence. If basic facts about biology and sexuality were not spoken about, how could women understand their own lives? Our Bodies, Ourselves sought to address that knowledge gap.
In a related sense, I want to argue that our obsession with androids actually masks the role of computers and all sorts of machines in our lives. In keeping with that approach, I would like to draw on the work of Donna Haraway who, as far back as her 1984 essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto” has argued that we should embrace the model of the cyborg, which she calls “a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction.” The concept of the cyborg inherently rejects the dualism of human and machine. It does not look back to foundational myth of an idyllic past of human autonomy. Instead, the cyborg accepts a complex experience that combines the biological and the mechanical, the masculine and the feminine, the human and the animal.
And I would encourage us to think less about the threat of robots or about the fantasy of androids and instead to acknowledge the extent to which we are all already cyborgs. We can acknowledge this to the extent that we do not feel quite ourselves when we don’t have our phones with us. Or maybe we have within our physical bodies stents or replaced joints. Or perhaps we drive cars that have become so familiar they have come to feel like an extension of our selves.
These connections between the human and the machine may carry with him some kind of guilt, if we feel that they compromise our sense of autonomy, as if the ideal human existence is one where we do not need machines or implants or vehicles. But if we embrace the concept of the cyborg we can accept that our bodies have always been merged with technology. We have always relied on machines, devices and tools to survive. In many ways, the best definition of humans is to categorize us as a species that uses tools.
So I’m not worried about robots, or, at least I should say, I’m not any more worried about robots than I am about any other political issue facing us. The mechanization of jobs? Yes, be concerned, but not because of robots but because the concentration of wealth in the top 1% of income earners has led to productivity increases not improving the lives of most workers. The long term fate of the planet? Yes, be concerned about a political structure that struggles to address or even acknowledge climate change. I’m concern about all of that. But I’m not any more or less concerned because of robots, because I don’t believe that they are either the cause of or the solution to our problems.
I’d like to end by reading a short piece of science fiction that comes at this issue from a different direction and perhaps captures the lived experience of the kind of argument I have aimed to make tonight.
It’s not like I’m against technology. I binge watch TV, my health info gets updated every minute on my wristwatch, and my left eye (the one with lousy vision) has a computerized contact lens, so I can wink and get the latest stock market report or whatever. So, it’s just not about the technology, okay.
I just don’t like self-driving cars, and I don’t care that they’re all anyone uses anymore. Sure, I get the appeal. They’re safer, they’re easier, you can still play Candy Crush while driving. But, I’m just not comfortable in a car without a steering wheel. To be honest, back in the day, I didn’t even like being a passenger in a conventional car. I was one of those passengers who slammed his foot into the floor whenever the driver had to brake quickly. I just need to be in control of my destiny, and in self-driving cars I feel like I’m trapped. Also, it creeps me out the way that all the new cars communicate with each other, so that a whole group of them can flow along a busy highway like a school of fish, darting and dashing between lanes as a group. Every time I’m in a self-driving car and it switches lanes in traffic, I brace for a crash. Of course, the crash never comes because the automotive hive-mind just adjusts and absorbs my car into the swim of the school. Still, it kind of freaks me out.
I have my old car, the one I used to drive myself, stored out in the backyard. I keep it around, partly out of nostalgia and partly in case of zombie apocalypse. I still start it up every month or so just to make sure it runs, and one of those times when I was sitting behind the steering wheel, remembering what it used to be like to drive, I decided, what the hell, why not just take the old car out for a spin? It’s not exactly illegal to drive cars yourself anymore, but it’s not recommended either, since 125 m.p.h. is the going speed for the self-driving cars on the interstate. I figured I would tool around on some country roads where the only automated machine I would have to worry about crossing was a combine.
That’s how it started, at least. And, I’ve got to tell you, driving felt just like I remembered it. One hand on the steering wheel, the other arm resting against the window. I got to choose how fast or how slow to go, and I had a world of roads to explore. The sun was shining through the trees and everything was green and warm.
And then I got lost. Yeah, I forgot that when I used to drive I also had a GPS system so I would know where to go. But who needs GPS in a world with self-driving cars? Well, apparently I did, because by the time I realized I was lost I was surrounded on all sides by soybean fields without even a farmhouse in sight.
Now, I didn’t panic. After all, this was the car I kept in case of zombie apocalypse, so I had plenty of canned food and a sledgehammer, but still I wanted to get home. Then, in the distance, there was a break in the soyfields where I saw the interstate cutting through. All I needed to do was get on the highway and drive in the direction of home.
Of course, this meant I would have to drive as fast as the automated cars. I should have mentioned that the car I was driving was a Kia, which might not mean anything nowadays, but it really wasn’t the kind of car designed to go 125. Still, I had to get home, so when I approached the on-ramp, I floored the gas pedal and the engine started whining. I was doing 85 when I hit the turn for the on-ramp, which surprisingly felt plenty fast, but I was crawling compared to the rest of the cars on the highway, and when their sensors picked me up, cars began weaving and slowing to avoid hitting me as I merged.
The gas pedal was floored but I couldn’t quite get to 100, and by the sounds the engine was making, I wasn’t sure I wanted to. Cars darted left and right, verging then merging around me. I hunkered down in the granny lane and tried to ignore all the traffic zooming by and seemingly missing crashing into me by inches. As I approached town, the traffic increased but the speed stayed the same. I was driving so fast that my Kia was shaking, and cars now began passing me on all sides.
Then, and I don’t know how it happened or why, it was as if all of the cars realized at the same time that I was in trouble. They surrounded me, and I could feel myself getting caught in the draft of the cars in front of me. I eased off the gas and my car fell into the flow of the school. A dozen cars strong we swiftly sped up. I was worried at first about hitting the cars that were inches away from me on all sides. But when I steered slightly, the other cars all adjusted. The rattling of my car lessened and the engine stopped wheezing. We glided down the road like a school of fish heading downstream. When we approached my exit and I signaled for a turn, the cars on my right parted and I eased onto the off-ramp.
Soon I was alone again on the road nearing my house. I was still gripping the steering wheel like my life was at risk, and maybe it had been. But as I slowed and approached home, I suspected that maybe there had been nothing to worry about the whole time.
(and, yes, this is not current MLA citation style, which I only use when forced, so don’t get me started on the problems with it)
Carr, Nicholas. “These Are Not the Robots We Were Promised” NYTimes 9 Sept. 2017. Online.
Ford, Martin. The Rise of the Robots. Basic Books: 2015.
Gere, Charlie. Digital Culture 2nd Edition. London: Reaktion Books.
“Growing a Nation: The Story of American Agriculture,” National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) (2014) https://www.agclassroom.org/gan/timeline/farmers_land.htm
Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York; Routledge, 1991), pp.149-181.
Kakio, Michio. “The Jobs of the Future Will Be What Robots Can’t Do” bigthink.com. Online Video
Masunaga, Samantha. “Robots could take over 38% of U. S. jobs within 15 years.” L.A. Times 24 March 2017. Online.