This week: RevoltEdited by: Robert Waltz
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The danger of the past was that men became slaves. The danger of the future is that men may become robots.
Through our evolution, we're so specialized for social interaction. So, if you can really design robots that can interact with people, in this very natural, interpersonal way, I think that would be great. You wouldn't have to have people read manuals, in order to operate them.
We're going to become caretakers for the robots. That's what the next generation of work is going to be.
Concerns about our creations becoming autonomous and destroying and/or enslaving us are hardly new in literature. It was the theme of the first science fiction story) and many more since, and the idea appeared even in earlier fantasy literature, such as stories of the creation of golems.
The basic idea shared by many of these stories is that some human creates a servant or helper, which eventually turns on its creator. While the idea is not new, advances in technology seem to be bringing the reality of autonomous, artificial servants closer to fruition.
And a lot of people are terrified of the idea, so we get things like the Terminator stories, or Blade Runner. And, yes, the military has developed semi-autonomous drones that search and destroy enemy targets without human guidance, but that's not quite at "robot uprising" level yet; to date, as far as we know, they've been working as programmed (ethical issues notwithstanding); so far, none of them have turned on their creators.
To me, the idea of a robot uprising is a bit silly for one reason: power constraints. Until we develop an unlimited or renewable compact energy source (or the robots do so), any damage caused by any single mechanical servant is quite limited. Pull the plug, or wait until the battery dies (if my smartphone is any indication, this will take about an hour).
Sure, there's solar, but on small scales it doesn't provide the kind of power needed for a scary robot. And there's atomic energy, but, well, same constraint.
Of course, it would only take one rogue AI to start a nuclear war, but that's not the same thing as the robots forcing us to kneel before them.
That aside, one purpose of speculative fiction is to identify all of the things that can go wrong with an idea. Science fiction is sometimes touted as "predicting the future," but I like to think of it more as attempting to prevent undesirable futures.
Still, I think the subgenre, like the zombie invasion stories, taps into a very human fear: that we will be the authors of our own demise. And that's looking more and more likely as time goes on.
There is probably also an undercurrent of the ethics of servitude there. Slavery is horrible for the slave, but it also takes away some of the humanity of the slaveowner. As we outsource more and more of our menial tasks to mechanical servants, which (currently) don't have the qualities and desire for autonomy that we humans do, we lose self-sufficiency. On the one hand, a robot is an extension of a hammer or a bulldozer, helping us perform the tasks for which those tools were designed; on the other, as we develop more autonomy and decision-making ability for them, we tend to project goals and desires onto the tool. The natural evolution of this projection is to think of them as being truly independent, at which point they're no longer tools but sentients.
And what's more scary than those you have enslaved rising up to destroy you?
We're not at that point yet. But we can always speculate.
Meanwhile, where's my self-driving car? I was promised a self-driving car.
Some flights of fantasy for you:
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So that's it for me for July! See you next month. Until then,
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