Saturday, May 21, 2011

Robot Apocalypse, Robot Utopia

There's no doubt in my mind that we're heading into what's called "the knee" of an exponential curve in terms of robotics  - that moment when the accumulation of molecular advances in the technology and everyday penetration of a piece of technology takes off. As I discussed in a previous post the evidence for this exists in a number of places, with the most recent affirmations (to my mind) being the announcement of a general purpose personal robot - the Luna - to be launched at the end of this year and the near-term intention to launch an industrial, multipurpose robot at a price point around $5,000, making it affordable for small companies. But there are many other signs that this is the case - advances in autonomous swarm robotics to allow teams of small robots to explore disaster sites; robots trained to develop their own language to describe their experience to other robots; advancing robot vision systems using biological modeling of a visual cortex in a monkey. And that is just a small sample of the many convergent technologies that are acting as enablers for the coming robot revolution.

What will the robot revolution mean for human society? How will we be changed by the arrival of ubiquitous robotics? What will it mean in terms of everyday life, in the home, in the workplace, in healthcare? Generally, of course, we are given two models of possible futures in a robotic world - the apocalypse a la Terminator and the Matrix and the "utopia" with helper robots a la Astroboy or Data on Star Trek TNG. In one instance robots, as proxies for all technological advancement, finish us off as a species, in the other technology is seen to solve all of our problems - world hunger, poverty, climate change, etc. However, I want to suggest that the question is rather more complicated than that.
First, a little mea culpa: I love technology. My wife and I each have a smartphone and Macbook Pros and an Apple TV. My wife - a photographer - shoots with DSLRs, one of which also shoots HD video. I regularly read the tech press - from the techno-cyber-philia of the transhumanist websites to the more "sober" pages of MIT Technology Review, New Scientist and IEEE Spectrum. We desperately need to renovate our crumbling kitchen and part of me hopes we don't get the money until its possible to get an internet connected smart home that I can access from my phone anywhere in the world and that has augmented reality projectors in the kitchen. You get the point - I love tech.

But loving the stuff doesn't mean accepting the promises and threats that are thrown about uncritically. It is simply not true, for instance, that the problems of poverty and world hunger remain unsolved because we have to achieve the level of technological advancement required to feed and house people. There is more than enough food produced (I won't get into the quality of the food produced - high carb cereal grains providing the bulk of global crops, for instance) but that food for which there isn't a market - i.e. people with money to purchase it - is allowed to rot or is dumped at sea. Many countries in which there are the worst problems with food shortages are actually net exporters of cash crops - whether bananas, coffee beans or cacao.

Even if there weren't a surplus of food crops it is also not the case that there is a lack of resources to convert non-arable land, provide seed stocks, fertilizer, farm machinery, etc. At present the USA alone spends close to $1 trillion on various aspects of the military and intelligence apparatus. The next ten military purchasers combined spend another $1 trillion. That is more than enough to feed every hungry human, house every shelterless family, provide clean water and teach every illiterate to read. Lastly, the technological priorities that do exist - which make the private automobile the pre-eminent mode of transportation, encourage short distance flights for business, expand carbon-heavy low density development (i.e. suburbs), make use of fossil fuels for our power plants - contribute to climate change, which exacerbates food shortage in many place. The so-called solutions of converting grain stocks and arable land to the production of biofuel only contributes to the problem.

The problems of scarcity are thus social problems and not technical ones. And having a robot in the home or in the field or the factory will not solve those problems. The irony could be that agricultural workers could be displaced by robots and then not have the income to buy the food that the robots are able to produce in greater quantities. And here again, the problem isn't that robots are taking jobs - it is that the priorities of our society are such that rather than being used to make our lives better - as tools (whether hammers or robots or computers) are meant to do, they instead threaten to make our lives worse at least in the short term. But don't blame the robots - blame the Man.

Next part in this series: Will Robots Lead To Revolution?
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