All the fuss over rampaging robots & avenging androids: YAWN!

There is this pathologically monotonous narrative in science fiction books and movies. Does this script sound familiar? Flashback: One man has a breakthrough with Artificial Intelligence that allows robots to think. Intermission: Robot supersedes man’s intelligence. Present: Robot plots mankind’s destruction and goes on a killing spree. Climax: Man plots robocide – robotic genocide. A few brave men and dazzling women fearless face the circuited-menaces. Robots are disarmed. End: Mankind is saved.

It’s obvious that most of us belong to techno-camps. Either you choose to be a techno-cynic and lament the broken promises of technology (see: machines of loving grace), namely eradication of poverty, hunger and world peace. Or you are a techno-utopist, believing in the effervescent promises of a glorious future that will be realized when the full potential of modern technology is utilized.

But there’s an inherent contradiction in belonging to these camps. On one hand, we fantasize about living in a time when robots become common place much like the scenarios played out by sci-fi writers such as Isaac Asimov, Douglas Adams and Arthur C. Clarke who transport us to a world free of domestic, manual and industrial labour and the other promises of deliverance from a harsh life on earth. But it’s also at this point that we prophesize doomsday for mankind brought about by the bio-synthetic hands of robots who want nothing better than to finish us off.  Phew, Shakespeare really should be thanked for succinctly immortalizing our plight when he wrote: To be or not to be!

Our benchmark for a technologically-enhanced future are these contradictory scripts and it’s time we moved past their solipsistic narratives of what awaits mankind in a robo-cy-andy infested world. What comes to fore within these fictional trajectories is hubris – and fear – that our creations cannot surpass our baser instincts of ego, jealousy, fear, envy and greed. By placing robots and cyborgs in a human framework of “intelligence”, we subject them to the same overarching script that we write for ourselves. That explains the A.I. Apocalypse. 

What of the present? Whichever camp you belong to, sci-fi is no longer fictional. Today, we co-exist with robots and cyborgs, but not at the hyper-futuristic diets we were raised on. Prosthesis, implants, embedded chips and circuits, sensors, bio-mechanical objects that aid body functions are steadily making inroads in medical practice. Robots are employed in heavy industries such as construction, mining, chemical and pharmaceutical sectors, to aid doctors in complex surgeries and rehabilitation therapies for patients, in aviation and gaming, education and childcare. How many years before they get a human face on the metallic surfaces and a voice-box to go with that mechanical smile?   

“We shouldn’t have a Frankensteinian fear of incorporating technology into the body, and we shouldn’t consider our relationship to technology in a Faustian way – that we’re somehow selling our soul because we’re using these forbidden energies. My attitude is that technology is, and always has been, an appendage of the body.”Stelios Arcadiou

Media and cultural observers also talk about external devices that are replicating and fast replacing human functions and abilities. We consider any personal, hand-held, screen-enmeshed interface to be an extension of the self – our digital appendages in essence. So, we are seeing an unprecedented increase in the outsourcing of cognitive functions like memory storage / remembering data or details, calculation and measuring, analytical thinking, problem solving and inference. We expect the machine to pick up after us.

And here’s setting the stage for another one of our contradictory scripts: We expect machines to live up to their names and be just that, unfeeling, unthinking, untiring, and undying instruments of performance. Yet – and I am sure I am not alone in this – we also worry about how we will treat the things. It’s a very human tendency to humanize objects, what psychiatrists would call empathy. Our dolls and teddy-bears become gender-subjective and we christen them with human names – even a baby understands this; the same goes for our beloved canine, feline, avian companions. Do you think we wouldn’t extend the same courtesy to robots and cyborgs? You think we will be satisfied with “Machine, get me a glass of water” (I can see you cringe). A tough existential question would be, whether to refer to your machine, as a he / she or “it”!

If we begin to develop empathy for our machines – and I believe this will happen sooner than we realize – imagine the laws that would come into place for fair workplace practices for robots, including time-off, vacation and tune-up (sick) leaves! A society where we think about the welfare of machines, imagine that. There wouldn’t be any dread about marauding machines and tyrannical T-100s (a la Terminator 1, 2, 3, 4) rising up in revolt against the autocratic humans.

And like David, the A.I. who gets an unexpected wish fulfilled when he dreams for the first time in Steve Spielberg’s A.I., perhaps, the robots and cyborgs of our times will dream of hybrid sheep while their human caretakers sing a lullaby. Wishful thinking? Perhaps a robot reading this post in the future could throw a hint!

Appeared as editorial in Digital Natives with a Cause newsletter, Volume 9 Issue 3, February 2012: http://self-employed.cmail3.com/t/ViewEmail/j/618450E416FA6B7C

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