They, Robots

Somehow I knew robots would continue to be part of my life. After all, they are a staple of science fiction and they are indeed also a staple of science fact. As my association with FIRST Robotics taught me, robots are everywhere. (And they can play frisbee better than I can.) So when I saw an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Robots Aren’t the Problem: It’s Us,” I knew I was in for a scolding. It’s not so much the robots that worry me, it’s what they say about us. People thrive in environments of complexity. Even a simple robot has me standing next to a bunch of teenagers scratching my head. I don’t know what half the parts are and have no idea what the other half do. Even the components can be complex. A good case can be made that the natural world is equally, if not more, complex. I can imagine how, for instance, being confronted by a tiger in the wild would offer a bewildering variety of complex implications. And yet, robots are the world we’ve constructed for our selves.

Not every job is immediately threatened by mechanical replacement, but we know that in the industrialized world some jobs have disappeared. Our choices of how to find meaningful vocation are being conscripted by the machines we make. Like God we make them in our own image. Unlike God, we make them more powerful than ourselves. Richard Florida, in his Chronicle article, notes that some claim the robots will free us to become more human. Only if the economic barons will allow it. Even today, at the very beginnings of the robotics revolution, it is awfully hard to find a satisfying job. Even with very extensive education. I know this from experience. At the end of the day you end up working to make money for somebody else. Robots didn’t steal my vocation, business did.

Al-jazari_robots

I appreciate Florida’s point, but I wonder if we can’t point a finer point on it. All people are greedy, to a point. In most of us a human, all too human, conscience starts to bother us when we realize that we are unfairly advantaged. Some people even actually do something about it. Those who run the business, however, didn’t get to the top by obeying the dictates of conscience. The apotheosizing of money demands that humans be treated like, well, robots. We are all servants to those who aren’t shackled with quibbles and moral qualms. Robots, on one end, are reducing the number of jobs. On the other end entrepreneurs are seeking whom they may devour. The mass of humanity is caught in the middle. When it is time to beg for mercy, from what I’ve seen, the far safer bet is with the robots.

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