Let’s bring on the brave new world

The dominant concern about robots is that they will make us obsolete, but past changes suggest we should take off the blinkers of fear, says Laurie Zoloth.


My grandfather painted carriages. He drew the looping white lines, making fine points, stars and little circles to decorate the crest of the nobleman who had hired him. Drawing on the tablecloth with the tip of his finger, he showed me how he would design the lacy, intricate lines to follow the arch of the axels. When he came to America, he offered his services to the local garage. The men laughed at him and he saw his entire trade vanish. He was not alone of course; he was just the most recent man to lose his craft to a machine.

The madders who dyed cloth with plant pigment lost their jobs to German synthetic chemistry; the knocker-uppers who roused mill workers in time for work lost their jobs to alarm clocks; and ice-cutters who carved blocks from frozen rivers lost their jobs to refrigerators. The industrial revolution transformed all sorts of jobs, from the terrible backbreaking labour of agriculture to the lilting craft of carriage painting. My grandfather learned to paint houses, which he liked to paint sky blue as often as he could. He also bought himself a black Model T Ford.

So when panic arises about the implication of robots and AI, I tell grandfather’s story – how long it took him to paint a carriage, how only the nobles could afford it, and how happy he was to have traded the rickety wagon of his youth for the black Model T of his later years.

The ethical concerns about robots have a certain odd quality – they are always about the future, never the present.

The dominant concern is that robots will make us obsolete. Not only are they much stronger than us, soon they will be much smarter. In an oft-dramatised scenario they eventually take control of the world, leaving us as either well-tended pets or miserable underdogs. Another scenario is that android-like robots become our slaves, experiencing their robot condition through sad little robot consciousnesses.

At the heart of these concerns is the philosophic question of the rights and responsibilities of robots with human-like intelligence.

This is not a new topic. In 1942, Isaac Asimov imagined the ethical problems besetting his science fiction creations and solved them with his “Three Laws of Robotics”. Asimov thought it would be fairly easy to program our robots to be both rational and well-behaved, and that because they could plot out the consequences of their actions more logically and with greater power than we could, they would actually end up being highly moral agents. In fact, he had more faith in the opportunity to create moral machines than in the rationality and compassion of human beings.

We do not know how the machines of the future will turn out, but it is likely that neither the apocalyptic nor the messianic vision will happen.

We could devote this entire article to imagining the ethical dilemmas of a future world populated by intelligent robots. But what about the ethics of what robots have already delivered?

I can get a robot to clean my house. I have a typing machine that fixes my wretched spelling. There are websites that know my tastes in philosophy and literature, and I have a cell phone that tells me where I am. My machines give me, a random humanities professor, the equivalent of a retinue of servants. Outside my home, robotic DNA sequencers and computers in labs are picking out signatures of cancer in patients’ DNA (a task that not so long ago took an army of researchers more than a decade). In hospitals, tiny robotic arms perform microsurgery, allowing operations in remote locations. Out in space, satellites circle and warn me of weather hazards. We have already incorporated thousands of robotic achievements into our lives, and it is only sensible to hope for more, such as a robot car that may save tens of thousands of lives, a robot that can fight fires in rough terrain, or robot diagnosticians that can scan a patient and make a treatment plan.

Of course not all the world lives like I do. Too many women and men dig, and fetch and carry burdens that are too heavy to bear, or do meaningless clerical work. For these people, who are too often invisible and who are treated like robots, the robot revolution cannot come too soon. And, I daresay, those who oppose it have never worked in a factory or a field.

We do not know how the machines of the future will turn out, but it is likely that neither the apocalyptic nor the messianic vision for robots will happen. A recent Pew poll split 50:50 on the issue.

We will likely proceed in a human way – sprinting and stopping – towards the future. We will do it with smarter and larger tools, and we may call them robots and they will likely be very clever. My grandfather did not stop being creative, nor was he unable to transform his skills to a new sort of work. He did not miss the old times, or the old craft, or the terrible poverty of the old (but quaint and organic) world.

It is said that imagination and fear is the fuel for science fiction. Many of those fictions have become fact and improved the human condition. If we remove the blinkers of fear, what can we imagine for our future?

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