The real threat that robots pose to humanity?

The rhetorical flourish that opens this article from Businessweek says it all, really: ‘The robots are coming. Resistance is futile.’ Obviously meant tongue-in-cheek in what is a very well-reasoned article, it is perhaps not so far-fetched after all . Here might be the one threat that robots do pose to human existence that may not be hyperbolised. Robots will take over our jobs, leaving humans unemployed, and starving, and largely redundant. 
The counter-argument, of course, has always been that we will still need to human labour to build the robots, to programme the robots, to fix the robots. But we know of course that this is not the case. The robots are increasingly capable of building themselves; and anyway, not everyone who loses their manufacturing jobs to a robot will be able to make the side-step into programming (assuming the robots let us keep control of that aspect of production). Our economy simply isn’t set up that way. Just like not everyone in the north of England who lost jobs after the closure of the mines were able to re-train as stock analysts our investment bankers. Or as mobile app designers.
However, here at Dreaming Robots we do not see ourselves charging at the windmills of change.  And fortunately, the Businessweek article happily reminds us that we humans are useful, that there are still some things that we simply do better than our robot colleagues. For example, apparently, we are really good at picking things up. Good on us!
The article, however, makes a very good point. It is not a case, perhaps, that the rise of the robot will cause mass human unemployment and poverty throughout the global economy (and remember, whatever else, robots are still expensive to make, and human life, and at least in certain parts other world, is still tragically cheap), though perhaps it is a case that 

the role robots play in our economy and our lives begins to provoke fundamental questions about the nature of work. We have organized our economic system around the idea that income is derived from labor. But what happens when labor is not just transferred from one group of people to another (outsourcing) but to machines?

Just as the Industrial Revolution radically forced us to re-organise our modes of production, and so reconceive, ideologically, certain fundamental notions of what it is and means to be human, so too perhaps this post-industrial revolution (do we really want to call it that?) may well require a similar reconceptualisation of fundamental ideas about labour, capital, our mode of production and so therefore ultimately (because I’m an old Marxist, really) the notion of human nature itself.
Philosophers are already out there working on these very questions, incidentally, and I hope to introduce you to some in the coming months. But governments, too, need to prepare for this new economy, as the article makes clear.

For the U.S., that will require innovation and entrepreneurship, but also policies that foster those things—such as an immigration policy that attracts and retains high-skilled newcomers who can help build job-creating industries, and a corporate tax rate that encourages investment in domestic opportunities and not offshore tax-haven chicanery. Critically, more of the wealth created by productivity gains needs to be channeled into a stronger system of education and training.

Finally, though, and again this is something that the article very correctly makes clear, there is a whole lot wrong with our economy right now, and these measures would not be wasted, even if the robot threat is revealed one day to be overblown. If you’re looking for problems in our economy, we’re told, robots ain’t it.

Robots to Hunt the Hunters?

This news from Forbes that Google is to give $5 million to build drones that hunt poaches struck us an interesting this morning.

The idea, we suppose, is a good one – utilising the developments in robotics obtained by the militarisation of technology to a more globally-beneficial end. It sounds promising, and is a nice reversal (e.g. instead of killing human, some of which might be trying to kill other humans, these drones would kill human that were definitely trying to kill animals… which seems like a step in the right direction?)

Whatever the nobility of the project, and/or it’s status as Good Thing, we can’t help but immediately conjure images of Arnold Schwarzenegger, stalking around the jungle carrying a massive blaster rocket laser launcher in a mash-up of Terminator and Predator, while playing Dr. Doolittle. Perhaps the film will be a musical.

Robot Game of the Week

Well, it might not happen every week. But you may have noticed that there are a lot of robot-themed games out there, and we think it is in Dreaming Robots remit to examine at least some of them – though we fear that a tedious, predictable theme might soon develop (involving, we suspect, laser blasters and much metal-on-metal blasting). Still, we hope and aim to be surprised.

(We should point out, too, that while we would eventually like to offer substantial analyses of the more… sophisticated offerings in the market, this is not a game-review page. Furthermore, we know that there are much more… involving games out there, but this blog is very busy right now, trying to be an academic and researcher and family person, so you will, alas, have to wait for the substantial analyses of some of these other games. However, if anyone would like to send in suggestions for future review, or their own comments, these certainly will be most welcome. As always, we aim here to create a dialogue.)

So, our first Robot Game of the Week is this offering from Miniclip: Super Robot War. It’s small, it’s easy, it’s brilliant, addictive fun. It features robots smashing robots with fists, with chain-saw arms, with blasters, electronic ninja swords and rocket-launchers.

There is a small twist on the usual Shoot the Baddie Robot theme. While, yes, you are shoot baddie robots, your character, too, is a robot – and a gender-appropriately coloured robot to boot, as the above illustration demonstrates. Not really that much of an innovation, since your robot behaves in most respects like a suped-up human (including the aforementioned gender stereotyping, which presumably invites us to identify with the hero.)

We got to Mission Three before becoming compelled to write you. Post your high scores in the comments.

Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, Part II

So, continuing to look at Cambridge’s new Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (the announcement of which, and the subsequent less-than-accurate reporting, this blog covered here), I looked at the article linked on their thus far very minimalist website, by Huw Price, Bertrand Russell Professor of Philosophy, Cambridge, and Jann Tallinn, Co-founder of Skype.

The article, ‘Artificial intelligence – can we keep it in the box’, is a very sober assessment of the two sides of the debate on the possibility for and consequences of the technological singularity. They offer the case for the ‘optimists’ and the ‘pessimists’ (though sometimes it’s unclear which side is which), and remind us of some of the important considerations that evangelical enthusiasts at both extremes sometimes neglect.

They point out, for example, that if\when AI achieves human-levels of intelligence, that intelligence will have a very different evolutionary history from our own. Of course, this can be read in two ways.

By default, then, we seem to have no reason to think that intelligent machines would share our values. The good news is that we probably have no reason to think they would be hostile, as such: hostility, too, is an animal emotion.

The bad news is that they might simply be indifferent to us – they might care about us as much as we care about the bugs on the windscreen.

As to the question, ‘What to do?’, they offer the following:

A good first step, we think, would be to stop treating intelligent machines as the stuff of science fiction, and start thinking of them as a part of the reality that we or our descendants may actually confront, sooner or later.

A step with which this blog wholeheartedly agrees. And we’d like to help, by disabusing ourselves of the fantasties that are behind our fictions — and not just ‘fictions’ in terms of films and books about marching cyborgs with laser blasters, but also those behind so much of the debate, the desires and fears, of both those extreme ‘optimists’ and ‘pessimists’.

(But don’t stop at the end of the article. The comments below are well worth a perusal — partly for the informed, detailed additions some make to the discussions, the suggested further reading, and some… well. One guys insists that aliens are a bigger threat, and another one hopes that some of us heed the warnings about the singularity, because he wants to have some friends from this century with him a thousand year from now.)

A clangor of robots? a skynet of cyborgs?

This absolutely wonderful illustrated list of supernatural collective nouns from offers some suggestions for how we might refer to the inevitable armies of robots, cyborgs, androids et al. as they march through us towards World Domination.

Along with other classic monsters, such as a ‘congress of ghosts’, an ‘indulgence of leprechauns’ and a ‘vexation of zombies’, we have a unique ‘Mechanical Class’, that includes the following:

  • a nervousness of AI
  • a yard-sale of androids
  • a bank of automation
  • a skynet of cyborgs
  • a squadron of drones
  • a swarm of nanites
  • a fleet of probes
  • a clangor of robots
  • a harem of sexbots
  • a culture of viruses
Not bad, but on the whole, I felt, not as good as some of the offerings for the more traditional monsters. (I think an ‘opulence of succubi’ or a ‘yearning of sasquatches’ are probably my favourites.) Any other suggestions? Or, heaven forbid, does anyone know if there are correct terms? (A ‘flange’, perhaps?) Comments welcome.
One thing I like about this is that is shows that our mechanical monsters taking their rightful place amongst the traditional monsters of our popular imagination (along with a ‘duty of Frankenstein’s monsters’).