Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
Robots! What is your reaction to that word? Does it conjure up images of bumbling sci-fi sidekicks or heartless dystopian killing machines? Logical humanoid companions, servile slaves, or the thing that just took your job?
At the very least it is fair to say that there are many different reactions that a person might have to robots – of the positive and negative variety. Yet the key question becomes: how do these opinions change as robots move increasingly from the realm of science fiction into our real lives? We are accustomed to the displacements that technologies bring with them, and the contemporary speed of technological change has resulted in many people going along with these changes with little time to think what these shifts might mean for previously long-held values (witness the mutilation of the concept of privacy). Nevertheless, a shift into a society reliant on ever more and ever more capable robots is one that will dramatically transform our world in a way that will make smart phone wrought changes seem quaint.
What shall this future hold for us? As computational power increases, will we reach a moment at which robots become smarter than humans? Will the jobs that seemed safe from the threat of automation vanish to a workforce that doesn’t request higher wages or days off? The concern about these shifts has been moving out of the realm of futurological speculation and into a topic of respectable economic thinking in the last several months, with some raising warnings even as others gaze wide eyed into the glory of the robotic future.
It is within this context of “robots as a matter worthy of serious consideration” that Kevin Drum has entered with his recent Mother Jones’ article “Welcome, Robot Overlords. Please Don’t Fire Us?” A title that makes clear that even as this is a serious topic, it is hard not to chuckle at the fact that these really are articles about robots (robots!). Drum starts his piece by laying out a fairly optimistic view of the robot enhanced future in which almost all jobs have been taken over by intelligent machines, thereby freeing humans to enjoy greater leisure, particularly as the new machines – in their near limitless brilliance – have solved many of the world’s most pressing problems.
This vision of the future, a future as near as 2040, is based on an application of Moore’s Law (which states that computer processing power doubles every 18 months or so) to current trends, thereby predicting that we will soon be entering a period where the jumps in computer intelligence shall be truly staggering. Google’s self driving cars, which Drum refers to, will be but a step on the way to even more intelligent machines. The robots will not rise, they will be hired, and we will be replaced by them, but don’t worry, we will be granted a life of leisure once the robots take over all of the jobs that we always hated anyways. Right? Well…
After plenty of smiling and subtle suggestions about the inevitable future as promised by Moore’s Law, Drum addresses the flip side of the equation. Recognizing that the robots will likely be owned and controlled by the same people who are currently in economic power and as such those same, already wealthy groups, will reap the substantial financial and social rewards that robots stand to bring. While it is true that robots cannot replace every human job they will gradually, through ever-increased processing power and dexterity, slowly (or hastily) encroach on ever more job fields, including many of those that were viewed as safe. Indeed, having expensive educational bonafides or an adroit set of technical skills may be no guarantee of employment. And for these masses rendered jobless by the machines? To the dole queue with them! The solution to this problem, as Drum envisions it, is some form of radical redistribution, a way to ensure that the wealth created by the machines is equitably (or moderately equitably) distributed amongst the populace.
With some economic analysis Drum describes various signs to look for in the shifting economy (“the five horsemen”) that will serve as a warning of just how “impending” our “impending doom” has become. Drum recognizes the dark potential in the robotic future (he notes that serious economic dislocation can give rise to human horrors on par with our worst fears of robot takeovers), but remains optimistic that all will work out for the best. In answer to the question of what this will all mean, Drum writes, by way of concluding that:
“whatever the answer—and it might turn out to be something we can’t even imagine right now—it’s time to start thinking about our automated future in earnest.”
Drum’s article is an interesting piece, and assuming that one can get beyond the amusing title and past the first lengthy section about the “soon to be upon us wonderful robot future” a reader can easily come away with a sense that there may be cold metallic days ahead but if you hold onto a steely hand long enough it will start to feel warm. Running through Drum’s article is a certain sense of inevitability; even as he notes that some physicists think that Moore’s law may slow in the coming years, he maintains a clear sense that these changes are near: robots are coming, they will replace us at work, it will be tough for a while, then it will be pretty great, so don’t worry!
The final section of Drum’s article discusses “what can we do” with the takeaway being, to be frank, “not much!” That is other than hope that some manner of redistribution will occur. Drum’s article is hardly a call to arms, it is a call to stay on your couch staring at a screen, be it a television, computer, phone, tablet, or whatever. After all, if Drum is to be believed our robotic future will be one where we spend a lot of time sitting around. Remember:
“A robotic paradise of leisure and contemplation eventually awaits us, but we have a long and dimly lit tunnel to navigate before we get there.”
That line (which really is the final line of Drum’s piece) seems laughable in its absurdity. “A long and dimly lit tunnel to navigate,” Drum writes, but in that case how can he possibly tell what lies at the tunnel’s end? Isn’t this line called into question by his claim, from a few lines earlier, that the future “might turn out to be something we can’t even imagine right now?” And with what evidence does he think it will be a robotic paradise? Indeed, a more apt title for Drum’s article would have been “Meet the Robot assistant manager, your boss is the same.” After all, Drum acknowledges that those reaping the benefits of robotic workers will be the same upper echelons of society, the same groups who would be counted on to “redistribute” their wealth. The likelihood of this happening is on par with the likelihood of a “robotic paradise.” In other words, not very.
The subliminal message of “this is inevitable, so don’t bother resisting” that plays out between the paragraph breaks (not literally) in Drum’s article is further seen by his invocation of those valiant few who are amongst the best recalled technological resisters in history: the Luddites. Credit should be given to Drum for presenting the Luddites in a somewhat measured tone, he is willing to recognize them for what they were: skilled workers who recognized in the new machines the loss of their livelihood and who chose to resist as best they could (by smashing the offending machinery and in some cases attacking those who owned the machinery).
The Luddites, we know, were ultimately unsuccessful, and though the specter of General Ludd may have been partially resurrected in the spirit of Captain Swing and both figures may still stand ready to swashbuckle at the margins of society “Luddite” remains an epithet. Here Drum pulls a clever switch on the reader, he refuses to use Luddite as an insult denoting technophobia but instead uses it to suggest struggling in vain against technological change.
Were the Luddites successful? No. But was their failure a result of their fight against the encroaching machines or a result of wealthy factory owners and the British government mobilizing powerful tools of repression (including military force) to stop the uprising? The latter. This may be another subtle point that Drum is making by invoking the sentencing of various Luddites, namely that any serious resistance will surely be put down by force; it’s just another way in which Drum is saying “don’t resist…just sit in the back seat of your robotic car as it drives through the dark tunnel and then at the other end the robotic paradise awaits.”
Drum also makes reference to the economic years that follow the Luddite uprising, writing of these enraged and desperate workers:
“Power looms put them out of work, but in the long run automation made the entire workforce more productive. Everyone still had jobs—just different ones. Some ran the new power looms, others found work no one could have imagined just a few decades before, in steel mills, automobile factories, and railroad lines. In the end, this produced wealth for everyone, because, after all, someone still had to make, run, and maintain the machines.”
In the above quote Drum is again performing a sort of argumentative sleight of hand on the reader, making it sound as if the life enjoyed by the workers after displacement was on par (if not better) than it had been beforehand. “Power looms put them out of work,” but made the “entire workforce more productive.” Fair enough, but did this increased productivity lead to increased wages, or more profits for the factory owners? As the workers were forced to relocate from the countryside to ever more cramped cities what were the conditions in the “work no one could have imagined just a few decades before?”
Here it is useful to recall that the Luddites were not simply standing against technology, but against the system that this technology represented. Such is recognized, and discussed, in labor historian David Noble’s book Progress Without People (an excellent book for those who found Drum’s article interesting if lethargy inducing). Noble writes of the Luddites:
“Nineteenth century workers were reacting against the encroachment of capitalist social relations, marked by domination and wage slavery, and they were well aware that the introduction of new technologies by their enemies was part of the effort to undo them. Unencumbered by any alien and paralyzing notion of technological progress, they simply tried to arrest this assault upon their lives in any way they could.” (Noble, 8).
Or, if you are wary of contemporary mythologizing of the Luddite legacy (for more on the mythology of Luddism Steven E. Jones’ book Against Technology, is worth a read), consider the following line from a surviving Luddite letter (reproduced in historian Peter Linebaugh’s work Ned Ludd & Queen Mabb) in which the Luddite author described their cause as:
“We will never lay down arms [till] the House of Commons passes an Act to put down all Machinery hurtful to Commonality, and repeal that to hang Frame Breakers. But We. We petition no more—that won’t do—fighting must. Signed by the General of the Army of Redressers. Ned Ludd Clerk.” (Linebaugh, 15).
What is necessary here is to differentiate the Luddites actions (they smashed machines) from their larger cause. Luddites were not smashing machines because it was good fun (though it may have been) they were taking steps as redressers against an oncoming system of encroachment and displacement, against “machinery hurtful to commonality.” This was machinery that did not result in a “paradise” (robotic or otherwise) at the end of the tunnel. Summoning up the image of the Luddite uprising as Drum does works to preemptively paint any resistance as foolhardy, and doomed, whilst quietly suggesting that such resistance will fail—not due to a lacking ethical claim—but because of brute force. Keep in mind, again, that those deploying that brute force will be the same groups being relied upon, in Drum’s vision, for willing wealth redistribution.
Beyond Drum’s usage of the Luddites as a resist-and-ye-be-doomed bludgeon, what is further awry in Drum’s article (and those of its ilk) is the woefully frail vision of humanity it presents. After all, it is easy to view humanity as swiftly being replaced by robots, when human intelligence is given such short shrift. While Drum does mention the impressive “processing power” of the human brain, he suggests that this can still be, and will be, reached by the increasingly smart robots. What is missing from Drum’s descriptions are any notions of ethics or emotions, those aspects that at times interfere with our regular intelligence, but which are an essential element of what it is to be human. Humans are defined as much, if not more so, by our wily irrationality as we are by our ability to be coldly logical – true human intelligence emerges out of this tension.
One can accept Drum’s basic premise that a future with intelligent robots able to perform more and more tasks is highly likely, and still recognize that defining human intelligence in a way that it can be installed in a robot is to a do a great disservice to the idea of humanity. Drum recounts the tales of Deep Blue (the chess playing robot) and Watson (the Jeopardy! playing robot), and notes that their success at defeating humans in these games helped indicate that there was more to intelligence than being “really good at chess.” Which is obvious. Yet what is missing is the fact that Deep Blue and Watson could never equal their human competitors in fields that go beyond simple programming: ethics, emotions, and the ability to reconcile these with our intelligence. Watson may have known millions of factoids but could Watson build creative contextual bridges between these topics, or just deliver responses in the form of a question?
Much of the worry that people feel towards robots (Terminators, Cylons, etc…) comes from a sense that these machines will have no grasp on morality, that in their programmed efficiency other concerns will drop by the wayside. After all, a robot doesn’t need to leave work at 5 to pick the kids up from school, for a robot has no ethical commitments. Just programming. And what this means in the perspective of the world of work is also concerning. Will a robot processing information at a chemical company “blow the whistle” should they discover dangerous negligence? Only if it’s programmed to do so, which is unlikely. Will a robot take into account the humanity of those with which it deals? Only if it’s programmed to do so, and thus despite Drum mentioning machines that are “endlessly patient” the response needs to be that these machines are simply programmed to give the appearance of patience. Actual patience, human patience, frequently comes from an empathetic reaction to another person, wherein we recognize that sometimes we need to give up on our immediate desires to be there for another person. That it isn’t “all about us,” but do robots have the necessary self-consciousness to even have an “us” in that situation?
Similarly, would robots turn Luddite upon their inevitable replacement by a newer generation of faster better robots (there was an amusing episode of Futuruma that dealt with this)? No, for the Luddite cause was built upon an emotional and ethical reaction to their world, reactions that one would not expect to see from robots. The Luddite reaction came from canny human intelligence, that conflict between a logical solution (smash the machines) and irrationality (smash the machines), but a reaction that is nevertheless a reaction of human intelligence to ethical and emotional imperatives. Captains of industry will no longer need to fear the monkey wrench, since now their factories will be run entirely by monkey wrenches.
Indeed the humanity that is being displaced by robots in Drum’s work lacks all dynamism and moral fortitude, which is perhaps why we humans are unworthy of being exhorted to resist. The treatment of humanity in such a paltry way and the vision of humans as drones that can be replaced by robots so that we can then lazily watch television is a fundamentally one-dimensional view of humanity and what humanity is, matched with a subtle pre-acceptance of the “robots are your friends not your replacement” propaganda.
The view of humanity portrayed by Drum and his view of the pitiful modern person was forewarned many years ago by the philosopher Herbert Marcuse’s in his book One-Dimensional Man, a work that recognized the danger of humanity being subjected to the machinery that Drum seems to praise. Yet Drum’s optimism, his hope of a “paradise” and his downplaying of resistant potential is simply the logic that modern technology stamps upon our minds, as Marcuse wrote:
“In the contemporary period, the technological controls appear to be the very embodiment of Reason for the benefit of all social groups and interests—to such an extent that all contradiction seems irrational and counteraction impossible.” (Marcuse, 11)
This is the march of progress, after all, and Drum portrays it as “the very embodiment of Reason” whilst casting “contradiction” as “irrational and counteraction impossible” or at the very least doomed to violent failure (as in the case of the Luddites). The steady replacement of humans by capable computers has been consistently driven by profit minded systems and individuals and those who think that this is about to shift to a more “democratic” control of technology are seeing as unlikely a utopia as the one Drum envisions (even some technophiles are worried about technology’s authoritarian potential [also here]). Rather, what is evinced by this is that:
“Today, domination perpetuates and extends itself not only through technology but as technology, and the latter provides the great legitimation of the expanding political power, which absorbs all spheres of culture.” (Marcuse, 162 [italics in original])
Thus the “robotic paradise” is not a real promise at all, barely even worthy of a foolish hope, it is rather the distracting promise held out to justify the expanding systems of power and control that will be part of a further replacement of humanity with machines.
“Welcome, Robot Overlords. Please Don’t Fire Us?” may present an interesting account of the speed of technological advancement, but ultimately it is an article that acts as the worst sort of propaganda for inhumane systems, for it holds out unrealistic promise of utopian days ahead whilst warning that resistance is pointless. Alas, much like Star Trek’s organic/robotic Borg, arguments such as Drum’s seem to warn “resistance is futile” only because they have already been blinded by technological systems of control. If you have already been assimilated by the Borg, of course you would think “resistance is futile” (though Captain Picard proved otherwise [end nerdy aside]). Yet, Drum aims to keep his article –filled as it is with a few warnings—safely couched in the realm of positive thinking; it is not Drum’s intent to make his readers question their relationship with technology or to make them seriously think about organizing, and yet:
“The tolerance of positive thinking is enforced tolerance—enforced not by an terroristic agency but by the overwhelming, anonymous power and efficiency of the technological society.” (Marcuse, 230)
It may very well be the case that Drum is right and that the future will involve more jobs—that had previously seemed safe—being steadily occupied by robots, but if this happens it will not be because of a bold paradise of leisure around the corner but because of a further tightening of control by the forces already in control. Granted, all of this also fails to begin to discuss the degree to which Drum’s argument is a “first world problem;” if it is difficult to imagine robots bringing prosperity to displaced middle managers, what could it possibly mean for those dwelling in the poverty blighted reaches of the world? One would be a fool to suggest that the current arrangement of economic forces in society and the world represents a paradise, but a robotic future is not a “paradise found” in response to this unparadise lost.
Articles such as Drum’s, along with the predictions of economists and technologists, that portray an inevitable future as shiny as the sheen on our robotic butlers distract us from what it means to be human in society and distract us from the deeper philosophical questions regarding who we are, and what commitments we have to each other as human beings. Such pieces are not warnings against an inhuman future but opiates to numb and inure us to this ever-more technological future, one to which they pave the way with promises of a “paradise” if only we’ll be stupid enough to drive into this dark tunnel. They say that in general robots will bring a better world. And thus it is useful to reply with another surviving line from the original Luddites:
“No general but Ludd means the poor any good.”
Resist technology gone mad and you may fail, true, but to twiddle your thumbs whilst awaiting the robotic paradise just means that you aren’t even willing to try.
This piece cites three books:
Linebaugh, Peter. Ned Ludd & Queen Mab: Machine Breaking, Romanticism, and the Several Commons of 1811-1812. PM Press, 2012.
Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Routledge, 1991.
Noble, David F. Progress Without People: New Technology, Unemployment, and the Message of Resistance. Between the Lines, 1995.