What do we call the machines?

A good friend strongly recommended that I read Iain M. Banks’ book ‘Look to Windward’. It is a wonderful book. Deeply insightful, incredibly fantastical and yet wonderfully personal and familiar. I would recommend it to anyone, and not only those who enjoy science fiction. Thank you so much for suggesting it Rob Mildon.

One feature of this story, and I must emphasise that it is but one of many interesting features, is that the civilisation that humans have become part of is completely suffused with artificial intelligence. this became particularly interesting to me, beyond just feeling merely futuristic, but currently relevant, following two BBC radio Four Podcasts I heard. One from The Inquiry, titled ‘What Will Happen When Robots Take Our Jobs?’. An intentionally provocative title if ever I heard one. The other via Adam Rutherford’s wonderful ‘Inside Science’, which referenced a tool that would tell you how likely you are to have your job replaced by a machine within the next 20 years

One of the arguments put forward, encouraging us to not worry about the machines, was that this would bring in a new era of leisure. Let me start with a little semantics, which is where the title of this piece comes in. A robot means a laborer, so any ‘labour saving device’ is a robot. To me, a washing machine or a dishwasher are perfect examples of what a robot is. It has a sequence of functions and is does a labour for us that would otherwise be drudgery. Under this definition, the automatic tills at the supermarket or the pay machines at the car park are also robots. Remember that in South Africa traffic lights are called robots for the same reason, and I feel that the epithet is correct.

The usual response I get when discussing this – even with myself – is that a robot should look like a person. This is what the robots of the Asimov universe look like, and so many that were inspired by it and that preceded it. However, those are ‘androids’. Android means ‘human-like’. Note that Droid is an abbreviation of android, but R2D2 does not look at all human like. That is to say – both C3PO and R2D2 are robots, but only 3PO is an android.

The “real” robots that we think of are the ones in the manufacturing industry. The ones assembling cars. But there is an element in these machines, and in washing machines and traffic lights that falls short of the romance that we expect from the word robot, and that is intelligence.

This the point that the BBC articles are turning on. That the current machines can replace (I would argue enhance) human workers in blue-collar jobs, but the new machines will be able to do the work of white-collar workers. For some people, this gives them fear. I say bring it on!

Technology, like all human achievements and endeavours, can be misused. But the overarching story of technology has been one of increased human longevity, increased personal satisfaction, and increased human leisure. This is merely inevitable.

Regarding intelligence, we get the same issue over semantics. Artificial Intelligence demeans what these processes will be able to achieve, and underlies a belief in something mystical regarding our own intelligence. Our minds are machines. Unimaginably complex machines to be sure, but machines none the less. This in the same way that our ability to run, jump, grasp, see and hear can be completed by machines, one day very soon they will be able to think, wonder, imagine and hypothesise just as well as us. The day after that one, they will be better than us. But why does that give you reason to fear?

Does not the master want to see their student exceed their ability? Does not the idea that so many of our tasks could be completed for us give you a sense of relief? Progress will be faster. work will be safer. I see a better world.

Let us step back for a moment and think of the check-out robots. They still need human supervisors and human assistants. What I am imagining is not a world without humans, any more than factories have no humans. The humans just do different work.

Now we get to the crux. If these machines “take” our jobs, and a significant number of people are out of work or unemployable because their skills are redundant, the machines will similarly reduce our need for jobs. As production becomes more efficient, it will become more economical, and the money that we have will stretch further. Our jobs will stop being work, and become occupations. Things we do for the pleasure or interest. Think what proportion of the cost of any product is labour. In my industry (veterinary work), we aim for wages to be 40% of our costs. But the other costs have to do with labour at other locations. The manufacture of medications, the transport of products, the design of tools. At that layer there is probably another 40% that is related to labour, and the layer before that (construction of the factories and wind turbines), and in the layer before that (mining of the materials), and the layer before that (construction of the machines that mined the materials). If labour was taken over by machines, even intellectual labour, then the cost of living would drop away.

This brings me back to ‘Look to Windward’, the humans in this story are totally without want or need. Everything is provided for them by machines. Other civilizations are critical and jealous of their leisure. But rather than being the planet of the slobs, these people indulge their wants. neither are they hedonists. There is a group who like hang gliding and skydiving – so that is what they do. All day, every day, for years on end. I certainly have had times where I wish that I could continuing snowboarding and never have to go back to work – but that isn’t Dionysian debauchery. Similarly, people still have occupations – things that they do because they enjoy them. One of the characters is a music composer. There is a scene where someone asks him how he feels about the fact that a machine could compose a piece just as good as his in a fraction of the time (the fact that music will be performed entirely by machines is entirely glossed over). He replies that he does it for the enjoyment of it, and he suspects that the audience has a different enjoyment of a piece that was made by a living mind as opposed to a computer program.

Another comment that was made in the BBC Inquiry discussion is that human made items would be highly valued, in the same way that we value hand made today. So look forward to a time when our everyday items will be cheap beyond comparison, where we would only need to work maybe 10 hours a week to earn enough to live and thrive, where safety and health will be so good as to make the late 20th century look like a time of death and misery (the early 20th century already does from our point of view). Welcome the machines and the liberty that will come with them.

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