The Blog

Waiting for the Robots

Awareness should be a prelude not just to consideration, but engagement, and later at to thoughts of action. In that sense, technology should remain a tool with which we make not just our lives better but ourselves better.

When Stephen Hawking, rather than Stephen King, suggests that artificial intelligence could lead to the end of mankind, we have to wonder what is happening in our current relationship with new technologies. Yet Hawking's pronouncement is not a new fear; throughout the 20th Century, whether in terms of Daleks or Terminators, the invasion of Earth or the eradication of mankind, we have feared what we have created, perhaps just as Dr Frankenstein did.

But to complicate matters further, our reliance upon technology to deal with the humdrum, or even entertain us, grows and grows. So what role does technology play in providing a solution for every facet of life and human existence on Earth, and are we as humans prepared to outsource so much of our lives to machines and technology? Should we fear this as we consider this impact this may have on our ability to cope with physical and emotional challenges of day-to-day life? If the machines are getting smarter, can we also grow?

Technology so easily becomes a screen onto which we project our fears, and I suspect Stephen Hawking in expressing his concerns that what we create is but a vehicle for some of our deeper desires. If we are supposed to have been formed in God's image, what do we make of robots formed in our own image?

In fiction robots embody and reflect many of the worst aspects of humanity and what it is capable of. From our past and continuing guilt at the use of actual people as slaves, through to an outsourcing of the cold, murderous aspect of our nature that surfaces in war or conflict as a weapon, in each robot, there is a piece of us. And it is our murderous ambition, or our striving to triumph over others that might find form outside of the world of finance, and find mechanical form. What we should fear is within, but we may make it externally real, and alive.

Yet I think our current fascination with artificial intelligence and robots has another aspect that is just as deadly. The hope and dreams that technology - in the broadest sense - will solve all of our problems, including, critically, the burden of concern for our fellow man is perhaps more worrying than our wish to create fiercely competitive robots. This is an area that Evgeny Morozov has charted well, in his description of 'solutionism' and the desire for technology to solve every problem, from obesity to global warming.

To my mind, Morozov helpfully identifies this area of risk, and the madness that can underpin it, but I think he does not capture the powerful, regressive forces within us that pull us to allow something, if not someone, to do difficult things for us. Our fear that within a decade, robots will make us redundant, as they undertake work for us is not just a fear, it is a heartfelt desire. Whilst I would not wish to suggest here that much work is not mind-numbingly repetitive, and a huge strain on the person undertaking it, our wish to do less work will creep into all areas. Instead of confronting difficult challenges within ourselves, whether feelings of guilt or compassion, we go backwards and we are waiting for the robots.

It is often noted that social media can create similar problems, as Descartes philosophy descends to 'I Tweet therefore I am', and expression of concern or protest online an end in itself. There is a sense that we do not need to do anything anymore, and certainly not act.

Awareness should be a prelude not just to consideration, but engagement, and later at to thoughts of action. In that sense, technology should remain a tool with which we make not just our lives better but ourselves better. The hand protected from damage through the invention of the shovel, may do other, perhaps creative work more effectively. Technology should enhance us, and not make us less, and not feebly dependent upon autopilot systems and comforting, infantile visual stimuli.

You may be curious to learn what has spurned this outpouring of digital scepticism? For once, it is not obviously rooted in contact with young people whose relationship to the digital world has become problematic and out-of-balance. It is based on recently taking a family member to two A&E departments, where a questioning of our current priorities and investment plans came to the fore. And it wasn't waiting times that were the problem.

Indeed, the performance of the human part of the experience was very good, and the compassion extended real and valuable; we received good care. Yet the car parks were poorly lit, and almost impossible to find at night; the only source of even junk food and drinks dependent upon a premonition that a good supply of change was needed (in a world of contactless payments); the waiting rooms packed to the point where disease transmission was inevitable. Fortunately the ailment was not severe, the wait was not the full 4 hours, and the clinical support really excellent. The common sense basics were lacking, which if attended to would have made a huge difference. They would also not cost much either. But as I read pages on my Smartphone whilst waiting (okay, it was useful) of our investment in virtual reality, internet in space, and, of course, robots, I wondered how badly we have to treat ourselves in order to have such a glorious technological future. Digital health services, rightly aim to prevent illness, through monitoring and trackers, but the cost to you is dear should you cross the line into actual illness, and the actual hospital of the future still needs to deal with your basic needs, making food and drink at least reasonably accessible. We are not robots, even if our cyborg future is close.

If we are doomed to develop robots in our image, surely we must then keep trying to improve ourselves, and strive to be better people, living better lives. If we respect others and attend to the basic rights and basic needs, robot design could only improve. Then we should have no fear of robots or artificial intelligence, as compassion will be core to the design, and the intelligence human, not artificial. And we would not wait for the robots, as we build a better world now, not through the short-cut morality of anonymous, random acts of kindness, but through visible actions that involve work, and a concern for others.

Then we will sleep at night, and need not fear the robots.