Planning for the robot revolution
Yesterday I read this Wired magazine article about the robot revolution by Kevin Kelly called “Better than Human”. The idea of the article is to make peace with the inevitable robot revolution, and to realize that it’s already happened and that it’s good.
I like this line:
We have preconceptions about how an intelligent robot should look and act, and these can blind us to what is already happening around us. To demand that artificial intelligence be humanlike is the same flawed logic as demanding that artificial flying be birdlike, with flapping wings. Robots will think different. To see how far artificial intelligence has penetrated our lives, we need to shed the idea that they will be humanlike.
True! Let’s stop looking for a Star Trek Data-esque android (although he is very cool according to my 10-year-old during our most recent Star Trek marathon).
Instead, let’s realize that the typical artificial intelligence we can expect to experience in our lives is the web itself, inasmuch as it is a problem-solving, decision-making system, and our interactions with it through browsing and searching is both how we benefit from artificial intelligence and how it takes us over.
What I can’t accept about the Wired article, though, is the last part, where we should consider it good. But maybe it is only supposed to be good for the Wired audience and I’m asking for too much. My concerns are touched on briefly here:
When robots and automation do our most basic work, making it relatively easy for us to be fed, clothed, and sheltered, then we are free to ask, “What are humans for?”
Here’s the thing: it’s already relatively easy for us to be fed, clothed, and sheltered, but we aren’t doing it. That doesn’t seem to be our goal. So why would it suddenly become our goal because there is increasing automation? Robots won’t change our moral values, as far as I know.
Also, the article obscures economic political reality. First imagines the audience as a land- and robot-owning master:
Imagine you run a small organic farm. Your fleet of worker bots do all the weeding, pest control, and harvesting of produce, as directed by an overseer bot, embodied by a mesh of probes in the soil. One day your task might be to research which variety of heirloom tomato to plant; the next day it might be to update your custom labels. The bots perform everything else that can be measured.
Great, so the landowners will not need any workers at all. But then what about the people who don’t have a job? Oh wait, something magical happens:
Everyone will have access to a personal robot, but simply owning one will not guarantee success. Rather, success will go to those who innovate in the organization, optimization, and customization of the process of getting work done with bots and machines.
Really? Everyone will own a robot? How is that going to work? It doesn’t seem to be a natural progression from our current system. Or maybe they mean like the way people own phones now. But owning a phone doesn’t help you get work done if there’s no work for you to do.
But maybe I’m being too cynical. I’m sure there’s deep thought being put to this question. Oh here, in this part:
I ask Brooks to walk with me through a local McDonald’s and point out the jobs that his kind of robots can replace. He demurs and suggests it might be 30 years before robots will cook for us.
I guess this means we don’t have to worry at all, since 30 years is such a long, long time.