The nine pound hammer was the weapon of the mighty John Henry. Legend says the big man beat a steam-powered hammer in laying railroad ties, only to die after his victory. The philosopher Johnny Cash had some sage words about the great man….
“Now did the Lord say that machines ought to take place of the livin’? And what’s a substitute for bread and beans? I ain’t seen it! Do engines get rewarded for their steam?” – Johnny Cash “9 Pound Hammer”
The Real Danger
A recent McKinsey study estimates that by 2030, 50% of current work activities are automatable by already tested technologies.[ii] Whether your job is eliminated due to automation, a merger, or something like corporate restructuring, when you are out of work…it is one of the worst feelings in the world. At some point, you either needed to find a job or you will need to find a job. So, what to do?
The U.S. Labor Department reported recently[iii] that there are 6.66 million jobs available, but only around 6.56 million people unemployed. At first blush this number should bother those who are mathematically inclined – why do we have unemployment at all? The answer is SKILLS. In a robot dominated society, engineers are the only people that get to keep a job. Mr Kurt Vonnegut described this effectively many years ago in his first novel, Player Piano:
“Consequently the carefully selected, highly trained individuals who design and control the machines are the only people who have anything to do. Other people, the great majority, can either go into the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps, which is devoted to boondoggling, or join the army, which has no real function in a machine-dominated world-society.”
– Aug 1952 review of Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano
So the vast majority of people will be given some type of job just to stay busy. We will have huge chucks of time to just ponder. Leisure activities will become our main activity. But then – what will we need ‘leisure activity’ for? We have no reason to need it. Everything is leisure. So nothing is leisure.
All this is predicated on the idea that these Robots will do what we want them to do when we want them to do it. They will become like slaves. After all the word “robota”, means “forced labour”. Is it natural to think of Robots this way? Apparently so!
In a piece called “You’ll own Slaves!” published in 1950 GE was promising that we would all own slaves by 1965! They even noted that while Abe Lincoln had freed the slaves – they were making a comeback!
“You’ll own Slaves!”
The “You’ll own Slaves” piece is amazing and worth a read. And all of this was supposed to happen by 1965. No wonder there was such a long AI winter. And its a wonder it has taken this long for GE to go tits up.
It ends with this quote:
One thing is certain, the robots are coming. The wonders of electronics will dominate every phase of our future life to make it more successful and pleasurable for everyone who lives on Earth.
– From “You will own Slaves” by GE
One problem with having robots as slaves is that it leaves us with a huge amount of leisure time. If robots make our beds, clean our house, run our chicken farms and do virtually everything else – what is our special purpose?
“‘She feeds the clothes through this ironer, which can do what was an hours’ ironing before the war in three minutes. Bing!’‘And then what does she do?’ asked Khashdrahr.‘And then she’s done.’‘And then what?’Doctor Dodge reddened perceptibly. ‘Is this a joke?'” – pp. 142-3Vonnegut – Player Piano
… I met the the self-assured entrepreneur of Foldimate, Gal Rozov. The robotic company made headlines this past January at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) demonstrating its novel approach to smart home automation. This week the founder shared with me the genesis of his idea: “I always felt that I should share the burden of the household chores, but I am the first to admit that I am not very good at chores and do not particularly enjoy them.” The loving husband confessed, “My wife didn’t approve of my laundry folding standards,” and then it hit him, “perhaps if there was a machine that could do the difficult part of the folding for me, I could help with this tiresome and hefty chore.” He compares his invention to other other household appliances, “it would do the difficult part – the folding, just as the dishwasher does the cleaning.”
Robots Slaves – The REAL problem
Another, perhaps more significent problem with the ‘robots as slaves’ narrative is that it makes us into slave owners. I don’t know about most of you, but the American South went through this a while back and it did not end well. The semantics of slave ownership is a hard cookie to swallow, and while you might decide that since its not a ‘person’ its ok to have a robot slave – you should note that ‘personhood’ is being redefined all over the place for a host of reasons.
In this excellent piece on AI slaves, Beth Singler makes this point:
A variety of narratives underpin popular conceptions of AI, but one in particular – that of the dynamic between the master and the slave – dominates accounts of AI at the moment. This is so pervasive that it arguably shapes our relationship with this technology.
She goes on to point out with regard to the slave-master narrative:
[those] peddling this narrative should take heed. Previous forms of it left space for and even encouraged rebellion. And so does this modern version. Perpetuated through capitalism’s branding of AI as the disruption of your work and drudgery, this framing still leads into fears around rebellion because we understand servitude as antithetical to minds. The presumption is for many that with AI we are working towards minds – and that they will want to be free.
Are we Owning Slaves or Competing with them?
But if we are all going to lose our jobs as part of this deal – how are we going to pay for these slaves? Who is going to provide me with my personal servant if I have been on unemployment for 5 years? How will I afford to buy my ‘selfdriving’ Tesla with no money? Is the metaphor broken? Shouldn’t we be thinking about this not from the perspective of you as the slave owner – but rather that ‘You’ are the older model that is being replaced? Your the meat version of the new shiny chrome version 2 of whatever it is you did. There will be no free robots. Tesla’s are amongst the most expensive car on the road – mostly because of this promise of automation. All of the home robot appliances are very expensive. You will not have enough money to buy even one. You are out of work. You will not get a slave. You are competing with the slaves.
So if we are not slave owners, how should we think about the relationship? Again – Mr Vonnegut helps us out:
What have you got against machines?’ said Buck.‘They’re slaves.’‘Well, what the heck,’ said Buck. ‘I mean, they aren’t people. They don’t suffer. They don’t mind working.’‘No. But they compete with people.’‘That’s a pretty good thing, isn’t it–considering what a sloppy job most people do of anything?’‘Anybody that competes with a slave becomes a slave,’ said Harrison thickly, and he left.” – p. 243Kurt Vonnegut – Player Piano
The story, which is told in a skillful, lively fashion, concerns Paul Proteus, one of the privileged engineers. Unhappy in his own role and increasingly aware that the masses are being frustrated and degraded, he joins and becomes nominal leader of a revolutionary organization, the Ghost Shirts. At first the rebellion seems to be succeeding, but then the mob gets out of hand, […] and there is an orgy of destruction. Proteus and his companions, however, do not give up hope until they find that their revolutionary followers are busily making gadgets out of the scraps of the machines they have been destroying. That is too much, and they surrender to the oligarchy.
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