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The Cost of Our Obsession With Computers and Robots

19/04/2016 10:49

I've recently been binge watching a show called Halt and Catch Fire. There are many reasons why I'm drawn to it, but perhaps none more so than the fact that it's set during the 1980's - the era I grew up in.

The 80's were a fascinating time in our history. Everyone thinks of big hair, high top sneakers and those catchy synthesised one hit wonders when they remember that decade.

But there was something else going on that significantly shaped the world we now live in - and that was the dawn of the digital revolution.

It all started with the personal computer.

Back then, most family homes purchased their first desktop and it usually sat in a dedicated room like an office or study. Machines such as the Apple II and IBM gave kids the option to play games on floppy disk like Pac Man, Space Invaders and Battleships. They also gave adults the opportunity to replace their typewriters with word processing programs - albeit without spell-check.

Along with the personal computer, we also seemed to have an obsession with robots in the 80's.

I remember watching fictional movies and TV shows like Short Circuit (Johnny 5) and Knight Rider (Kitt) where robots would communicate with humans and help them perform everyday functions. Looking back on it, those concepts seemed like a far fetched dream at the time. One thing was clear however, and that was the fact that there was a burning desire for machines to assist us in every part of our lives.

Well, some twenty five years later, I think it's safe to say 'mission accomplished'. The digital revolution has made its mark and significantly changed the way our world functions.

Robots are everywhere now and the transition has been seamless.

Remember the days when you'd call up your bank or utilities provider and be greeted by a human being. Those days are a distant memory. The first voice you are likely to hear now is that of a robot who sounds very much like a human. He or she will have superior voice recognition capabilities and can not only direct your call but in most cases address your query. Robots also live in our mobile phones and have names like Siri and Cortana. They can answer many of our questions and even tell us the names of the songs playing in the background.

Robots exist in our cars too. They offer built in GPS systems that tell us how to get to a certain destination. But even that's becoming dated, and within the next ten years robots will be driving our cars for us.

Some of this stuff is undoubtedly very exciting, but is it really a good thing?

Robots and computers are taking our jobs and leaving more of the world unemployed. Speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Washington, Prof Moshe Vardi from Rice University said that the rise of robots could lead to unemployment rates greater than 50 percent.

"Robots are doing jobs that people used to do. Pharmacists, prison guards, boning chicken, bar-tending...I believe that society needs to confront this question before it is upon us: If machines are capable of doing almost any work humans can do, what will humans do?

The question I want to put forward is, 'Does the technology we are developing ultimately benefit mankind?'"

Vardi makes a great point, because while the concept of humans ceasing employment may be a romantic thought, it's one that is short sighted. I believe that human beings need to work to have some kind of purpose in this world. Actively performing tasks is essential for both our physical and mental well being. If we aren't using our minds or bodies we will inevitably turn into a society of lazy slobs. Some believe that we are already becoming that way.

You could even argue that the digital revolution has made people more robotic and less human. One of the main things that distinguish us from other species is our unique ability to interact together. Our mouths weren't created for the sole purpose of eating. Surely they were created to help us talk to each other, laugh together, sing to one another and so forth.

Something is clearly wrong when we rely on a social network to wish our friends and family a 'happy birthday'. At the very least we should be picking up the telephone to talk to the people that mean something to us. Convenience should never come at the cost of meaningful encounters.

I touched on these themes in a previous post.

But back to the 80's...I think it was a classic case of the saying "Be careful what you wish for". We now have the robots we longed for back then, and their impact on our lives is set to increase with time.

As a society we must ensure that we maintain our purpose and keep ourselves active. Efficiency is a word too often associated with the mighty dollar. We need to remember that we were put on this earth to do some important things, and not just have everything done for us.

Finally, before it's too late, let's bring back some of the things that make us more like humans and less like robots.

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