We can beat the robots - with democracy | Van Badham

It might be a capitalist desire to squeeze the last remnants of humanity from its workforce, but today we have electoral tools to fight it

Sophia told ABC radio that robots deserved more rights than humans. It’s a statement that would be of concern should your mum announce it, yet disappointingly unremarkable if uttered by some right wing think-tanky person defending job automation on a panel show.

But as Sophia is a robot herself, and one of a new robot technology generation guided by artificial intelligence that’s increasing in sophistication, the words are more than a little perturbing. Sophia is the product of Hong Kong based Hanson Robotics, and her notoriety exists not merely on the basis of her interview tactics, but because the government of Saudi Arabia has granted her citizenship rights after her recent local visit to a tech show. Many have noted that as she was provided a platform there without a male chaperone, she perhaps already has more rights than a Saudi woman.

Alas, as another Twitter wag has suggested, Sophia’s opinions on rights weren’t so much a watershed moment in Saudi feminism or tech innovation as they were the pre-credits background sequence in a horror movie. The observation was given more credence when the interviewer chose not to challenge the robot, but to proceed with the next question.

It appears Sophia is recruiting her allies early.

I jest. Sort of. I do try not to let my fondness for horror, sci-fi and dystopian literature provoke me into too much anxiety about the brave new world of robotics and artificial intelligence, but instead to remain both cynical and positive. A “snake robot” prototype that was freaking people out on the internet the other day struck me as little more than a clunky-looking bendy lamp. And, rationally, I’m heavily in favour of deploying robots for tasks like the cleanup of toxic accidents and waste (especially as, in dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, the state makes feminists do it). And as someone who dreams of human space odysseys, I’m pretty sure any kind of interplanetary space exploration will rely on robust robot help.

Yet accumulating phenomena is doing much to affirm fears in many that Sophia and her robot kin are an encroaching disaster on humanity. Elon Musk, the global capitalist who everyone almost likes, is on rather panicky record suggesting that artificial intelligence is more dangerous to human survival prospects than North Korea. Given the potential for its military use and the likelihood of a dangerous clown such as Donald Trump being in charge of a military, robots, a milk-crate, his own shoes or anything, fear is warranted. The Guardian has published opinion insisting that we can no more restrict arms dealers from creating robot weapons as we can comply soft drink manufacturers “from making orangeade”. As AI improves, it has already beaten the world’s greatest chess player and the greatest e-sports champion in their fields, while two AI Facebook bots were discovered in the process of self-generating their own language. And while robots are absolutely replacing manufacturing jobs, they’re replacing administrative vocations as well. At the automated Nissan factory in Japan, the most labour-intensive use of humans is the final roll out of a vehicle from the plant. Discussions about driverless transport are proceeding faster and further than anyone imagined – in Singapore, there are already driverless taxis. Reports have indicated that 47% of jobs will cease to exist within a technological generation. Others predictions suggest 6% of US jobs will be lost to the robots by 2021.

It’s scary stuff, and it revives old social terrors – we have, of course, been somewhat near this kind of thing before. The underperformed (and excellent) Harold Brighouse play, The Northerners, offers an efficient history lesson in the replacement of craftspeople by the machinery of the industrial revolution. It was not technology itself that instigated the “Luddite” rebellions of the 1800s so much as it was the displacement, dislocation and disempowerment wrought when a skilled artisan class was obliged into disposable membership of a new industrial proletariat.

It is a language myth that the word “saboteur” derives from similarly displaced workers throwing their “sabot” shoes into the cogwork to wreck industrial machines – but that it’s still believed says much about old fears revived by new instabilities in employment. When our Australian workplace is already so denuded of protections, anxiety around automation is valid and understandable.

But what’s telling in the debate around robots and jobs is the discourse is framed in the manner of a fait accompli – as if the mere capitalist desire to squeeze literally the last remnants of humanity from its workforce is enough to make it so. But there is a crucial difference between the structural reality of the era of Luddite protest and today. We are equal citizens within a democracy, whose capacity to form democratic majorities allows us to direct legislation, regulation, restriction and compensations within both the workplace and the nation state. This enfranchisement was not enjoyed by our forebears, whose early attempts to even form unions were met with punishments like transportation. We have, through law and treaty, banned numerous battlefield weapons enhanced by technology. And we do, actually, have the capacity to demand “robot taxes” as Jeremy Corbyn has suggested, and Bill Gates has championed, to oblige automating corporations to fund government expansions of welfare support and job creation opportunities for the human beings they make redundant. Through the electoral mechanisms already available to us, we can price externalities such as social impacts – and environmental ones – into the cost of doing business. What’s more, we should.

If Australia can destroy its own entire car industry in a single government decision, it is not merely irrational to believe that the power to compel industrial processes one way or another is beyond the remit of government. It is dangerous propaganda, serving only profit-seeking interests at the expense of our communities.

As the technology of robots grows ever more advanced, it’s worth remembering that the most meaningful distinction between the machines and ourselves is our human judgment, informed not by algorithms but by values of imagination, empathy, kindness, selflessness and community.

Should we not affirm the validity of our own capacity for democratic decision making, then the robots have already won.


Van Badham

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
We can’t ban killer robots – it’s already too late | Philip Ball
Telling international arms traders they can’t make killer robots is like telling soft-drinks makers that they can’t make orangeade, says science writer Philip Ball

Philip Ball

22, Aug, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
The Guardian view on killer robots: on the loose | Editorial
Editorial: Lethal autonomous weapons are a reality, but the campaign to prevent their use is ours to win


29, Aug, 2017 @6:40 PM

Article image
Killer robots will only exist if we are stupid enough to let them
As long as humans are sensible when they create the operating programs, robots will bring enormous benefits to humanity, says expert

Hannah Devlin

11, Jun, 2018 @10:00 AM

Article image
Why the rise of the robots could allow humans to flourish again | Giles Fraser: Loose canon
Loose canon: Nobody’s job is safe. But a citizen’s income in a post-work world could see us avoid the Terminator scenario and return to pre-capitalist sources of value

Giles Fraser

31, Aug, 2017 @3:05 PM

Article image
The rise of the robots brings threats and opportunities | Letters
Letters: Readers respond to the advance in robotics, and what it means for our economy, social fabric and the planet


26, Nov, 2017 @7:00 PM

Article image
How to prevent creeping artificial intelligence becoming creepy
With successful AI emerging slowly, almost without us noticing, we must improve the understanding between human and computer

Neil Lawrence

12, Jun, 2015 @6:30 AM

Article image
Here's why Elon Musk’s robot is electrified neoliberalism | Van Badham
It is time to evaluate how much transformational control we give billionaires over our societies, and our lives

Van Badham

31, Aug, 2021 @5:15 AM

Article image
The superhero of artificial intelligence: can this genius keep it in check?
With his company DeepMind, Londoner Demis Hassabis is leading Google’s project to build software more powerful than the human brain. But what will this mean for the future of humankind?

Clemency Burton-Hill

16, Feb, 2016 @8:15 AM

Article image
Worrying about robots stealing our jobs? How silly | Simon Jenkins
The digital age will free us to fulfil caring roles that can only be done by humans, writes Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins

Simon Jenkins

20, Aug, 2018 @10:53 AM

Article image
What depressed robots can teach us about mental health | Zachary Mainen
The idea of a depressed computer may seem absurd – but artificial intelligence and the human brain share a vital feature, writes neuroscientist Zachary Mainen

Zachary Mainen

16, Apr, 2018 @1:04 PM