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Robots: Friend or Foe?

I got into an interesting exchange with a young man, completely online, in which he posed the question: How would I feel about UBI (Universal Basic Income) presuming all jobs, including STEM jobs, were taken over by robots, which, he claimed, is poised to occur in as few as 25 years?

Forget the UBI part – I was caught up in the “robots will be doing all the work in 25 or so years” premise.

I’ve written before about the astounding leaps in robotics in recent years, with them moving fluidly and with human-like reflexes; about the “friends” you can (right now) acquire that will respond to touch and conversation; about the life-like babies and pets that will interact with you (unless of course, you don’t shut them off when you need a rest) and want to be snuggled, cuddled, changed, fed and otherwise cared for; and of course about the generations of robot intelligence, in which a robot can manufacture another robot without human assistance.

This theme, of course, has been written in many a sci-fi tale, from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, a Philip K. Dick novel which was adapted into the film Blade Runner (both the book and the movie are fantastic) and in which neither robots nor humans are quite sure who is in charge – or who should be; to the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey having a personality (HAL, or one letter off from IBM), and almost tragically “dying” when his power source is cut off at the end; to the robot-controlled world of The Matrix, which uses the human body as a power source, giving those humans an idyllic world of dreams in return. They are all that is considered dystopian fiction, which has been covered in the book column of this paper. Suffice to say, it’s not a pretty world that most writers envisioned when they considered adding robots as a playing character, as opposed to an NPC, in their fiction.

Among other things, much older fiction, like Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus warned us about creating “life,” real or android. There is an old, I am told, Chinese warning that if you save a life, you are then responsible for it, though I can find no credible source for that. The Greek Prometheus story is about the trickster God who creates mortal and then steals fire from the Gods and gives it to his creatures, and is punished for eternity, while the mortals use the fire for both good and ill. In other words, we have been warned about creating, or saving, life, as it carries with it enormous responsibility.

But what is the likelihood that the work of mankind will really be replaced by robots toiling for our benefit, while we’re sidelined to a life of – what? Lifelong idleness?

Robots are already being used in the medical field, performing very specific and detailed surgeries and procedures where no slip of the hand can occur, or which take place over lengthy periods of time. The da Vinci system is popularly recognized, and, along with other robotics, can be used for urology, colorectal, gynecological, and other procedures including bariatric surgery.

In addition, Wikipedia reminds us that robots are useful “in many situations … (such as) dangerous environments (including inspection of radioactive materials, bomb detection, and deactivation), manufacturing processes, or where humans cannot survive (e.g. in space, underwater, in high heat, and clean up and containment of hazardous materials and radiation).”

Drones, while not technically “robots,” have also been put to good purpose not only to take spectacular and stable images and films but to move into dangerous situations like fires and potential armed criminal environments so that firefighters and LEOs can “see” where victims or armed offenders might be.

Would it surprise you to know that the first reference to a robot (or “automata”) was from around the third century BC, commenting on a much earlier Yan Shi, who was an “artificer?” He supposedly presented the king with a life-size, human-shaped, mechanical “man.” In 420 BC a wooden, steam-propelled bird (a pigeon) could fly; in 1495 the great Leonardo had designs for a mechanical knight; in 1961 George Devol installed Unimate, the first industrially applied robot; and since then, according to the Robotic Industries Association, in the US alone, the automotive industry has become one of the largest consumers of robots, in which they can account for up to more than half the labor, and there is an IBM keyboard manufacturing facility in Texas called “lights off,” as it requires no human on-site oversight to operate?

All robots require the following: power, actuation (the “muscles” – and this is a very deep part of what’s new and expanding in robotics), sensing (the eyes and ears and now “skin” and equilibrium), manipulation, and locomotion (and this can include walking, bouncing, skating, driving, hopping, swimming, snaking, flying… it’s a long, long list). Each of these characteristics has been progressing by leaps and bounds (puns intended).

The part that is of great concern to humans is and should be human-robot interaction. If you’ve ever tried to communicate with Siri or Alexa you’ll know exactly what I mean. I recall an early interaction with Alexa, when I wanted to increase the volume, and, being completely ignorant of her potential, said, “Alexa, volume ten.” After that, nobody in the house could shout loudly enough to turn the volume down or shut her up. It required removing her power source. It might have required a sledgehammer.

And therein lies at least one of the rubs with a robot: once you’ve launched the thing, you had better have a fail-safe if you ever need to stop it! While a nice robot, like Data on the Star Trek reboot, could sense human emotion, and while the show was “cute” about whether or not Data shared any of those emotions, he could also react to subtle signals – and far more of human communication is via signals other than verbal commands than we realize in day-to-day life. A lift of an eyebrow, a noise or gesture, there are a whole host of things we do or ways we move that will communicate a lot to another human (at least, one of similar cultural background), and nothing, at least as of yet, to a machine.

This brings me back to the initial start of my robot quest: will we ever end up in a world where robots are doing all the work, and if so, what will humans do? Is idleness what we were made for, or do we live to work as well as work to live? Is challenge our greatest devil or greatest joy? Like many a Greek or sci-fi account, once unleashed, a technology, an idea, a human inquiry, like the mostly dreadful things that were released when Pandora opened her box, can’t be stuffed back inside. But we can hope.

Nancy Roberts