Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Fear of a Bionic Planet

Boston Dynamics' first high-profile walking robot shuffled like a newborn colt

Whenever Boston Dynamics (a former Google subsidiary) releases videos of its newest robotic accomplishments, most internet fans feel compelled to comment on how humans treat the robots. Every video demonstrates the robots’ ability to compensate for adverse conditions by having employees trip, kick, or bludgeon the robots with instruments. The robots always obligingly stay upright… and cue the predictable “robot uprising” jokes.

Not my friend Jay. Among America’s last die-hard pinkos, Jay sees these robots as the apotheosis of his longed-for workers’ utopia. “Everyone will be unemployed in 20 years,” he boasts. “Even professions such as surgeon and medical doctors are going to be automated.” Where this ex academic considers this a dangerous precedent, Jay applauds the possibilities: “With this technology we can build a luxurious socialist economy where no one has to work.”

Though I don’t disagree with Jay’s reasoning, I’d question whether this is reasonable, or even possible. I base my doubts on two basic questions: How have such prophecies unfolded in the past? And, would most people consider this development desirable? I have simple answers for both: “poorly,” and “no.” Given recent advances in technology, and general resentment of work, these opinions may seem counterintuitive. So let me defend my positions.

First, the prophecies. Clear back in 1997, Utne Reader featured a series of articles, dominating an entire issue, on how society’s ever-accelerating pace was detrimentally affecting Americans broadly. In one sidebar (apparently not archived online), the editors included several now-obsolete predictions about how speeding technology would transform the future. With both computers in the 1960s and automation in the 1930s, futurists proclaimed the imminent demise of work.

By their second high-profile model, Boston Dynamics made their robots trot like harness ponies

They didn’t mean just a little bit, either. These futurists predicted that humans broadly would struggle to find anything with which to occupy the now-abundant time. Around the same time, without apparent irony, David Brin wrote something similar about near-future prospects in Popular Science. These predictions make having time to burn feel, as Jay says, “luxurious.” This overlooks that we have names for unemployed people trying to burn off excess time: addicts.

So, our predicted coming leisure time keeps never happening, big deal. We need only succeed once and we’re all golden, right? Maybe, but I’d dispute that. While having abundant free time sounds wonderful, anybody who’s taken a long weekend to run naked through sun-dappled fields of daffodils knows how quickly the bliss peters out. Before long, you find yourself melancholy, studying anthills, wondering whether it’s time to return to work yet.

Catholic economist John Médaille notes that most people, confronted with self-directed time, spend it doing stuff that, if they received pay for it, we’d call “work.” Woodworking, knitting, community theatre, writing a blog… some people consider these paying careers. Others do them for fun. The only leisure-time activities that don’t resemble work are those which involve dissipating your time away, like watching television or getting drunk.

Socialist writer Barbara Garson admits she began her discursion on hierarchical employment, All the Livelong Day, assuming, as socialists do, that capitalism forces work upon unwilling workers. (Writing, in her mind, wasn’t really “work.”) However, she discovered that people want work, they seek it, and when profit-first employers strip work of meaning, workers try to infuse meaning back in. Work, she realized, isn’t a burden, but a shared human desire.

Boston Dynamics' latest piece of self-promotion walks bipedally, handles rough terrain,
and picks itself up when this bearded turkey shoves it with a log

Many sociologists define humans distinct from other animals by three traits: forming relationships, cooking food, and working. As Jesus said, the birds of the air and the lilies of the field neither labor nor toil. Christian scholars often take work as an emblem of Original Sin, following the Genesis account; but other faiths share the belief. Consider the Buddhist maxim: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water

Even scientists and non-religious persons recognize the centrality of work. Psychologists speak of the existential malaise humans suffer when lacking meaningful work, and the documented psychological consequences of long-term unemployment strikingly resemble PTSD suffered by ex-soldiers and rape survivors. And Jay would redistribute this meaning-making activity onto robots. But why? Work isn’t something to offload onto others. Work gives our lives meaning.

Turning our responsibilities over to robots sounds empowering. Isaac Asimov, wounded by the irrationality of World War II, proposed the same over sixty years ago. But as advances in technology prove overwhelmingly banal, and advances in psychology demonstrate humans crave work, that attitude seems naïve now. Robots may redefine what work means for coming generations. But work should not, arguably must not, ever completely go away.

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