George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Bill Gates, and Robocop have forever changed my view of utopia.
The irony of this is that the discussion of what utopia is strangely both apolitical and completely partisan and Orwell and Huxley juggle this dichotomy in both 1984 and Brave New World respectively. But other than expanding my 15-year-old mind to explore the idea of a utopian society, I’m not sure if I ever wrestled with what a real applicable utopia would look like – and if it would even be a good thing to have.
This train of thought started with a benign discussion of robots.
Mashable talked about how tiny robots can build big things, noting “SRI International, a non-profit research firm serving government and industry, has found a novel way to control tiny, low cost magnets via electromagnetic pulses delivered to them through contact with printed circuit boards,” and went on to say that SRI is expanding this so that these robots can manipulate tools and the research firms aims to “enable an assembly head containing thousands of micro-robots to manufacture high-quality macro-scale products while providing millimeter-scale structural control.”
Mashable said this was both “amazing, and a little bit creepy,” and I tend to agree.
I pondered the thought of the disappearance of jobs by bots, a thought that Bill Gates talked about at length and one that the Economist ran a big story on in June.
“Software substitution, whether it’s for drivers or waiters or nurses … it’s progressing. … Technology over time will reduce demand for jobs, particularly at the lower end of skill set. … 20 years from now, labor demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower. I don’t think people have that in their mental model,” Gates said, noting that maybe the elimination of the income and payroll taxes and tax incentives for businesses to keep on humans might be a good thing. It’s all technological unemployment.
But I can’t lie: Whenever I order takeout online, my order is always right – not always the case when a human jots it down. It’s not their fault, it’s just human error. And to be fair, the Economist did say there’s an almost 90 percent chance that what I do 9-to-5 right now will be done by robots in two decades. I am sure no matter how many grammar rules I memorize, the amount of times I’ll put in a typo is greater than that of a robot because of human error.
And this “lower end of skill set” is close to a fifth of the American population, as most of the 10 most common jobs in America are low wage work, including retail salespeople and cashiers, office and administrative support, laborers, and janitorial workers. Registered nurses were the only ones with average salaries above the national average of $22.33 an hour – and were also one of the jobs that Gates said might get phased out by bots.
It’s scary to think the way that my father and many people found their way into the middle class would be gone in favor of bots.
This reminded me of the recent reboot of Robocop that I saw in theaters. (Who can say no to Samuel L. Jackson in a wig and car chases?) Being a cop is one of those jobs that you could be a blue collar guy and have and feed a family on. So when I thought about the different forces at play in Robocop, typified by Raymond Sellars who said “Forget the machines. They want a product with a conscience. Something that knows what it feels like to be human. We’re gonna put a man inside a machine,” and Dr. Dennett Norton who said, “The human element will always be present! Compassion, fear, instinct, they will always interfere with the system,” it made me think – 1) where do we draw the line as to what we will and won’t let robots do? And 2) What’s the greater impact of the blend of man and machine?
Now how does this all relate to utopia? Well the 2014 Robocop stars with this vision of saving our brave men and women by putting robots on the street to deal with crime and creating a society where the crime rate can become zero – one of the facets of utopia that people crave. In talking about what these already invented magnet robots Mashable raved about could do, a friend said “The real life applications for things like these robots, 3D printing, and linking the brain to technology is like… woah. What if you had these tiny little robots with 3D ink and have them build a bridge. In my naive view, technology is the key to a more utopian society. If we can get technology to cover our basic needs, then maybe we’ll have more time for art, music, literature, etc.” (I have smart friends, and I don’t think the view is naïve at all.)
Maybe this could work. Have robots worry about fixing our plumbing when it spring a leak, have the state save human lives and send machines into the risky situations on the streets.
But then my thoughts flick to George and Aldous and how they grappled with the use of technology to control society, the control of information and history, and the dangers of an all-powerful state that can exert psychological and physical control of us through doublethink, through controlling the purse strings, through exerting power over heaps of metal that roam the streets assessing if we are a threat without the knowledge of what it feels like to be a man, a woman, a child, to express compassion, to react to fear, to work on instinct.
So what is utopia? Is it robots covering the basics and letting us create the high level cultural assets that will exist long after we turn to dust? Is it a libertarian view of limited government that allows us more freedom to live our lives the way we choose? Is it a progressive view of government that provides fiscal reform and regulation over private entities to prevent corruption? And are we OK with allowing machines control the little things in our lives? When do the little things turn into the big things, and the big things turn into everything?
I surely don’t know exactly how the Internet works, but I use it to pay bills, order food, talk with friends, even post this screed. So maybe the question isn’t are we OK with the thought, or where the line is, but how to grapple with the fact that we already sleep with our phones and freak out when our Internet connections stop. Maybe we aren’t talking about a future we ponder, but a present we already have.
Updated 4/21: Mashable once again teaches me something I don’t know, this time in op-ed form, which bashes the end of this blog post … and in delightful fashion.
The tl;dr version can be summed up with this:
“The varieties of ways in which drones are improving our lives is a great example of how the unintended consequences of technology can often be positive ones — no matter what Hollywood would have us believe for the sake of a story. Hubris was not the only lesson of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; it was also written to show how men fear and destroy what they don’t understand.
So understand how slowly and tentatively the new robot race is coming into being. Reserve your fears for more clear and present nightmares — such as the political candidates that will emerge from a campaign finance system that allows for unrestricted funding. And when your ASIMO finally arrives at your home, many decades from now, and pauses to look and smile at you when it pours the tea, remember to smile back.”