Maybe you recognize this title. Because if you’re spending time on planet Earth lately you will have noticed something. The internet is constantly asking us if we are still human. Because we are no longer alone. Robots are now reading websites and social media postings just as much as we are, and the internet wants to know it is dealing with homo sapiens still. Yes, we are still human, but for how much longer?
The word robot is a relatively recent invention (Czechoslovakia, 1920s) but robots have played on our imaginations for millennia. Ironically, the word stems from a Slav word for slave (rabu), and how long have they been around? That stem is also related to German Arbeit, a word as we all know made infamous by the Nazi’s Arbeit macht frei (Work liberates you). Even the birthplace of modern democracy, Greece, had slavery, and America the Land of Freedom has had a long and difficult heritage with it.
We’ve always had robots in the sense of slaves. The only difference today is that they are no longer fellow human beings. A ‘natural’ evolution? Perhaps. Simple robots (such as those used in automotive welding) certainly liberate us from deadening routine and mindless repetition. But as robots learn to walk, talk, ‘think’ and come out of their industrial cages, will our liberation backfire?
Consider for example the extent to which we have already abdicated the sovereignty of being human. Have you noticed, for example, your immediate distrust of a hotel or restaurant that is not listed or recommended online? Have you checked someone’s profile on LinkedIn before you responded to a meeting request? Have your powers of mental computation (okay, never excellent, let’s admit) actually vegetated and languished alongside online calculators? Has your sense of direction deepened or weakened as a result of Sat Nav, Google Maps and Waze? Could it be that we are actually getting dumber as robots are getting smarter? Are we gradually turning into Eloi from HG Wells’ Time Machine, privileged but effete masters who have lost the muscle to work and dynamic to decide for themselves?
As a futurist in the early twenty-first century I may have the dubious privilege to report on the last fully biological generation of homo sapiens, i.e. before Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, Computer-Brain Interfaces (BCIs) and exogenesis replace the biological process of living with a hybrid form of being alive and getting born. Google Glass may have backfired for now, but the wave of technological change that has mobilized our lives has now reached our actual bodies. As our robots become ever more humanoid, our bodies will become ever more technologized. From wearable computing to ingestible chips and smart pills to BCIs or even neural implants, our relationship with technology is about to become deeply personal: technology is getting ready to go inside of us.
I, for the record, am not a robot and intend to stay that way. I suspect that the master/slave concept at the heart of the robot paradigm needs an upgrade. In my latest book Technology vs Humanity I explore the myriad moral and ethical issues that lie in wait for us as a species, and soon. Robotics is far more than a trending investment theme, and so are the other Silicon Valley gold-rush divers: Artificial Intelligence and deep learning, cognitive computing, the Internet of Things and human genome editing (among others).
It’s a complete rewrite of the human plot as domestic robots join industrial ones to soon change the look and feel of ordinary life. Humanlike machines which have dominated our science fiction since Frankenstein will present humanity with a whole new slew of moral dilemmas, burning issues as yet unaccounted for by the manufacturers and unannounced by the policy makers. Okay, we get the paradigm of robots working in team with humans to mutual benefit in factories, but how will domestic robots rewire our families, where housework forms a hotbed of power play and confrontation.
Slaves have always sooner or later revolted, and Spartacus was only the most famous of many slave revolutionists. Will a day come when our robots not only know more than us, but know better than us? Will smart slaves collaborate with smart fridges to keep food away from us when we break our diets? Will robots refuse to let us into the house when we forget our smart keys? Will the price of slaves disrupt the wages of workers and lead to Luddite attacks? Will human free will disappear – or was it all an illusion to begin with? One shudders to think what competitive differentiation between robot makers will involve, and how soon walking, talking, thinking slaves will start to answer back.
My take on this impending automation, virtualization and robotization of human life is that we must seize this very moment to re-affirm the sovereignty of humanity and demarcate the line between the naturally human and the technologically superfied versions. Never before have we so needed a Bill of Human Rights for the Digital Age and a Digital Ethics Manifesto (as proposed in my latest book), including the right not to be augmented, hyper-connected, optimized or otherwise ‘improved’. After millennia of slavery and centuries of science fiction, robots are becoming science fact, just about to take their place right beside us on the sidewalk (and who knows where else…) It would be wise to talk about this now, including the ethical dimensions, rather than waiting for later. Awareness and debate are urgently needed before ‘mission control for humanity’ is given to a handful of powerful technology companies that are building these ‘global brains’ in robot bodies.
Robots are like us, but not of us. They can possibly simulate existence but they never actually exist. And this limitation does not make them less valuable – it is simply not the same as being human. Let’s not confuse the tool with the purpose (broadly summarized as human flourishing). Top marks for finding a way to replace the drudgery of being a human on planet Earth, but now let’s work out the ethics. Here’s my advice: Think of robots not as friends but as beautiful tools. Smart machines, to be sure, but not Disney characters. Let’s not anthropomorphize the machines so that our own humanity starts to suffer in the comparison. We are not robots. They are not humans. Thinking machines don’t think like we do. Liberate the slaves, but let’s not enslave the free.
Image Credit: CC by Vinoth Chandar