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Robot and Frank

August 19, 2012

If you watch any television (like I do, at doctors’ and dentists’ offices, where I’ve spent too much time lately on behalf of defective family members) you may have noticed (inbetween the Romney/Obama ads) a new kind of ad that positively portrays a room full of robots. The robots look cute, red, and busy, like Santa’s elves.

One of the big pioneers in this business (of robot workers) is–surprise–Foxconn, better known for making Apple products with Chinese human slave workers. As we all learned last year, even Foxconn’s iPad-producing human workers have a gripe now and then, about working conditions for which the management put up roof extensions to stop the fall of suicidal–well, that story is so yesterday. As the chair of Foxconn reportedly said, “Human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache.”

So, increasingly, the factories are going to robots. And the ads are trying to make us feel good about it.

Not to be outdone, even the movies are trying to make us feel good about it. Robot and Frank is a film about an aging man whose son gets him a robot companion. Driving with Daisy anyone? This isn’t even science fiction, since robot companions are already being marketed for seniors and children. Perhaps AI is the film we all need to revisit.

  1. Alex Tolley permalink
    August 19, 2012 12:37 pm

    While this is clearly going to disrupt people in the the short term, I think humanity will look back and say what a liberating thing machines are. Unpleasant, inhuman work conditions should not be forced on humans to make a living. Far better machines (non-sentient ones) do that labor. The challenge is that so much of “work” is mindless, that we either need to find new employment for displaced workers, of rethink how teh fruits of capitalism are distributed.

    It isn’t a simple formula of more education either. I am reminded that a few years ago, a robot plus algorithms was shown to hugely outperform a human in doing yeast genetic experiments. There may be no “human work” to retreat to.

    • August 19, 2012 1:25 pm

      And the machines write music and art, too. So, if you’re correct, what exactly are we getting liberated from? Humanity?

      • August 19, 2012 3:26 pm

        There isn’t an easy, human friendly answer to this. Suppose machines could do ALL human work. Then, under our current system, wealth and power would accrue to the owners and those for whom machine work was illegal (e.g. politicians?). Everyone else would be serfs, effectively outside the “economic system”.

        Obviously you can still do things, barter your skills locally, make art, etc, but it might be peripheral to the main economy and therefore hobby only.

        There is a also a fairly dystopian possibility as depicted in the movie “sleep dealer” where cheap foreign labor acts at the remote brains for robots elsewhere. This seems quite plausible to me, assuming the bandwidth is available.

        Which is why I think there may have to be a change in the wealth distribution system. Something quite discontinuous from the current system. How that transition might go, I have no idea, nor when the tipping point happens.

        OTOH, robots may be confined to situations that do not interface much with humans. For example, no robot beauticians. Humans may never feel totally comfortable in a robot society, and require humans to do high touch work.

        I certainly don’t want to stall the progress in robotics, as we have seen the advantages of computers despite similar qualms at the time (early 1980’s). But somehow we should be able to transition to a world of abundance without the potentially huge inequalities that might result if humanoid machines could finally fulfill their promise.

  2. August 19, 2012 6:31 pm

    Capitalism is committing suicide by automation. The Super-Wealthy don’t have enough sense of responsibility for the society that supports their power and excess. A re-organization of Specie as a value OUTSIDE of Society into something less competitive and combative is the simple solution to the unstoppable rise of population and inevitable fall of available job numbers. It is no more drastic a concept than the displacement of all the millions of menial jobs that were erased in the micro-circuit revolution, the automation of many military engagements, or the idea that in a ‘free’ society, 1% of that society holds domain over the rest of us, whose value, if not as a human life, is zero. Is this what the framers of the Constitution had in mind? Liberty and freedom, my ass.

    But on a lighter note, Hi Joan! I’m very much looking forward to this movie–I love the stuff where the value of a man-made life is debated over–it holds a mirror up to the way we treat normal, fresh-from-the-womb live folks, i.e. each other.

    I’m sorry you had to go to the doctor–I hate going to the doctor. Be good, or at least don’t get caught..

  3. Busy Bee permalink
    August 20, 2012 5:42 pm

    The thing that people tend to forget about dismal manufacturing jobs like those in 19th century Europe or in China today, is that people would flock to the cities for those jobs, even (especially!) when they had reports from family or village members that went before them. By our standards, the life of a factory worker seems bad, but by the standards of the farm life those people came from it’s an improvement. That’s no excuse for treating your factory workers as badly as you can get away with (any proper capitalist will tell you the excuse for that is management’s fiduciary duty to shareholders, while enlightened capitalists know that treating your tools and your workers well allows you to get more out of them than abusing them), but it’s worth keeping in mind. I imagine manufacturing will go the way of farming, with just a tiny fraction of the population left in charge of machines producing more than what could be achieved a few generations earlier when a significant fraction of the population was needed on the job. I think it is tragic that workers still do soul-destroyingly repetitive tasks that a robot would do better.

    I’m not sure how the wealth resulting from this vastly increased productivity will be distributed, and I don’t know what jobs (or hedonism) humans will gravitate to, but I have faith that a large enough fraction of the super-rich is dumb and greedy enough to ruin it for the rest of the super-rich by precipitating a popular revolt against the excesses of our current system before it gets to the point where the super-rich don’t need us, the plebs, anymore.

    Personally, I hope we’ll all be able to get more educated and to put more thought into how we do everything, but that’s mostly because that’s what I like to do myself. And once I’ve figured out how best to do something, I most definitely want a computer program or a robot to do it for me, once the excitement of doing it myself wears off or my capacity to do precisely what I want done is exceeded.

  4. heteromeles permalink
    August 20, 2012 5:48 pm

    I wonder if history is repeating itself. For a very long time, slaves (defeated in war, or whatever) were seen as inferior in most ways, and therefore fit for unpleasant, even inhuman work (especially if slaves are seen as less than human).

    Now we’re creating sophisticated machines to do these degrading tasks, and I’m forced to wonder whether there will be an uprising, especially if machines develop some form of self awareness.

    I think Octavia Butler inadvertently came up with a good solution in her Xenogenesis trilogy: love. If you can create sophisticated machines that love what they do, then some of the social tension goes away. A sewer bot may think the human world is a cold and unpleasantly sterile place, for example, while it think its perfect life is in the sewers, keeping everything moving. Similarly, if robots are programmed to love humans, then they may see their service as part of that love. This is equivalent to Asimov’s three laws of robotics.

    Speaking of the Three Laws of Robotics, it’s interesting to me that no one seems to be serious about implementing them. Instead, people stay out of robots’ way on the factory floor. Something seems wrong with this picture…

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