‘I, Robot’ Meets ‘Wall-E’ Meets Real Life?
In this distant land, in some distant future, humans and robots will roam the Earth alike. You will walk into your local diner only to find “Johnny 5” behind the counter serving up piping fresh hot chocolate and apple pie. No longer will cab drivers speak foreign languages, instead, they will speak binary and Betamax. You will go home to your cozy residence decorated in the primary colors of white, gray, and black. You’ll rest in your bed made of reconstituted organic soy fabric. And, your dinner will be prepared for you by Winston, your robo-chef whose knife skills far outweigh your own. And all…will be well.
Now, come back to 2013. Wasn’t that an interesting story? Yes, it sounded like a mix between “I, Robot” (2004) and “Wall-E” (2008), but, according to nerds all over the place like Kevin Drum of Mother Jones, this could be a very real future for us as soon as 2040.
My first thought upon hearing this story on the radio was, “Yeah right. These random ‘Weird Science’ people are popping up everywhere.” Even my nerdy, geeky, dweeby, dorky tendencies wouldn’t allow me to believe that in approximately 25 years I’d be able to sit on my butt while a robot cleaned my house. But, the information presented seemed quite persuasive. Just twenty years ago we saw the mass produced development of consumer cellular phones and pagers. And, within ten years, those phones increased in volume, usability, and cost efficiency. Now, our “smartphones” can make reservations for us at our favorite restaurants or find the nearest natural water resource without so much as a keypad or operator to assist in those endeavors. So, do personal robots really seem that far off? Probably not.
The Implications for Normal Humanoids
What made this topic most interesting (besides its uber-nerdy content) was the socio-political implications the topic addressed. What exactly happens to low-skill, entry-level workers in a society where robots dominate the food, retail, and manufacturing industries? Well, the well-off folks who own said industries would likely own the robots employed by them. And, big tech companies like Amazon, Google, and Yahoo! Would probably own patents and rights to consumer robotic products. So, what would happen to the little people?
Logically, one could assume that these individuals would end up jobless and dependent on government assistance for many or most of their basic needs. It follows that such an environment would increase the polarity between the classes and contributes to a burgeoning gap between the rich and the poor. This is an issue we already struggle with, so removing jobs from private industry seems like a dubious solve.
But, Kevin Drum seemed hopeful. His claim was simply that we could figure it out. Since these machines would still lack innate consciousness, they would never quite rival the ingenuity of mankind. And, humanoids would still need to program, maintain, and assist these robot beings into basic existence. So, in essence, a form of interdependence would form between robots and human. His claim is that necessary symbiosis would require humans to adapt to a changing world.
And, well, I don’t have a lot of faith in his theory. Americans, in particular, have become increasingly self-segregating. We do our best to emphasize our differences in order to “other-ize” people as much as possible. What would happen if we sprinkled in a few high-end robots to basically de-legitimize the economic investment in entire swaths of people? I shudder to think. But for now, I would like to think that “I, Robot-ica-Wall-E-merica” will be a happy place much less like the worlds of “I, Robot” or “Wall-E” and more like the world of The Jetsons.
I personally cannot wait to put my car in a briefcase.
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