Almost every sci-fi film you will ever see will feature some kind of robot. In some of these robots can be a force for good (WALL-E), in some a force for bad (I, Robot) and in some, just a fact of life in the future (Star Wars). The trouble is that the environments these cinematic robots inhabit seems distant from our present reality. The question I want to pose in this post is what happens to society when robots become part of the fabric?
One of the films I’ve already mentioned, I, Robot, is a dystopian vision of how things could go spectacularly wrong. Surrogates is another, potentially even more problematic, vision. In line with my previous post on growing inequalities in global society, I want to consider what would happen if robots became good enough to carry out more of the human jobs that currently attract the lowest levels of renumeration. In other words, what happens when the financial elite can obtain ‘efficiency savings’ by employing robots instead of paying minimum wage to some of the poorest in our society?
We have a historical precedent for people who violently oppose technological innovation. In the 19th century a loosely-organised group of people collectively known as Luddites smashed machines that made it easier, quicker and cheaper to produce textiles. Although I don’t condone their violence (they attempted to assassinate factory owners) I’m in full agreement that ‘efficiency’ is less important than human welfare. So who thinks it’s a safe bet that the first wave of robots to take (visible) jobs from humans will be set-upon and destroyed? I do. In countries like the USA where guns are a normal part of society this could lead to robot owners arguing that they should be able to arm them to protect their investment. If that happens, it’s armageddon time.
And what about education? If you consider learning to be akin to knowledge transfer, then before Matrix-style human brain ‘upgrades’ become commonplace, some states/countries will seriously consider using robots to teach children. Japan will be first, no doubt. Unless we undergo a transformation in our collective thinking, we will end up sending our children to institutions with high fences to drill-and-practice skills that are not needed now, never mind in 2020 and beyond. Sometimes it’s good to investigate the thick end of the wedge to test our intuitions.
Part of the problem is that our view of human flourishing is based on a scientific rationality that, at its logical extreme culminates in us ‘uprading’ ourselves to be functionally indistinguishable from robots. When I mentioned this to Louise Thomas from the RSA recently she said that something similar to this forms the basis of one of Iain M. Banks’ novels. I shall have to investigate. All in all, I think that not only do I think we need a conversation about the purpose(s) of education, but we also need a conversation about what it means to be human. People will do what they can get away with, what it is socially acceptable to do, what gives them a competitive advantage. Once robots become involved, things get serious on a whole new level. And I haven’t even mentioned robots for security, warfare and policing…
Image CC BY-NC-SA STCroiss