Been fascinated by robots - technology, culture and politics - since I was a small boy (and as a young man - see this Guardian piece).
Another bite at that problematic for The Scotsman.
Ghosting into the machine
The Scotsman, 17 March 2012
[Original pre-edit text below: Scotsman published version here]
Go into almost any high-street supermarket today in Scotland today, and you will almost certainly be faced with a friendly neighbourhood robot. The self-operating checkout tills that have broken out like a rash across the sector over the last few years may not immediately seem like cousins of the killer androids from science-fiction.
But anyone who’s used them knows the robot moment. One absent-minded act - for example, passing an item from basket to bag without scanning it properly - and the screen equably notes that there is “an unscanned item in the bagging area”. And won’t let you go any further until you remove it, and scan it again.
Sometimes you - and the robot - both get confused, requiring a real live meat-machine to come over and help you. But when you get up to speed with it, you quietly marvel at its ability to sense exactly what item has been placed in your placcy bag.
My emotions are mixed before this machine. On one level, I can often enjoy the activity itself - there’s an element of self-help and dexterity about it. But on another level, I look over anxiously at the human-staffed tills. Should I be depriving some student, part-time mother or new immigrant to the country the chance of a living wage?
Or should I be happy that the relentless tide of automation is liberating workers from meaningless labour? Wouldn’t I rather deal with a robot, than suffer the experience of someone so bored by their routine they’re half-alive anyway?
Economists and academics would say that any angst about the human-replacing effects of automation is historically faulty. Every technological innovation that’s enabled us to increase efficiency and productivity, to do more transformation of nature with less human labour, has led to an increase in the general sum of happiness - by making products cheaper, by forcing us to create new jobs and sectors that turn out to create value in new and different ways.
That’s what humans are like with technology, they say. Look at the exponential rise that innovation has brought in living standards, longevity, material comfort. We can’t, and shouldn’t, be Luddites.
But what happens when these innovations start to simulate the very mental and skills-based agility that supposed to define us as essentially human? When they can begin to understand language, and see the world, as clearly as we do? When they have infinitely better memories, and can make connections and see patterns much more powerfully?
We are already in an age where some the most unique human capacities for knowledge and decision are being gradually and casually automated. It’s no news that chess grandmasters are regularly humbled by data-crunching mega-computers. Last year, the two human winners of the US general knowledge quiz show Jeopardy were trounced in live and direct competition with Watson, IBM’s latest silicon brain.
The case-crunching and research that lawyers bill for can now be substantially carried-out by computer programs intelligently looking for patterns or precedents. We heard last year that sports journalists are even under threat: algorithms can now pull together perfectly serviceable prose from a string of facts reported from a game.
But one of the most startling mental robotisations might even be the process of scientific discovery itself. A group at Cornell University have created a computer program called Eureqa (available now, and for free, on the web). If you feed Eureqa enough data, it will eventually formulate the kind of natural law that previous took humans like Isaac Newton and William Hamilton to do.
Last year, Eureqa was given a whole load of information about the dynamics of a bacterium cell. After crunching through billions of equations, chucking away the irrelevant ones like failed species in Darwinian evolution, it came to what its makers call a "beautiful, elegant equation that described how the cell worked, and that held true over all new experiments".
The trouble was they had no idea how the machine had gotten there, or what underlying principle the equation expressed. “It was like consulting an oracle”, says Micheal Schmidt, one of its makers, quoted in the online magazine Slate. Schmidt thinks it’s possible that such computers may discover laws - derived from the unimaginably numerous interactions of genes, neurons and perhaps even markets - that we simply won’t be able to understand. Eureqa, or its successors, will be in the position of “trying to explain Shakespeare to a dog”.
“Robot-assistance” is the friendlier face of automation. Surgeons are now finding that, in certain kinds of sutures and probings, a robot’s hand or instrument - though still guided by a doctor - is much more steady and precise than a human hand. The surgeon can even be thousands of miles away, guiding it via an internet link. When looking for abnormalities in cervical smears, mammograms or coronary arteries, computers can now perform what’s known as “double reading” of scans - two doctors looking at the same results, in order to better detect problems.
Hospitals are using much more autonomous robots too. Using smartphone technology to locate and guide themselves in busy environments, barrel-like robots on wheels are beginning to appear as useful helpmates in wards and corridors. The new South Glasgow Hospitals Campus in Glasgow has just ordered 22 robots to operate in a subterranean tunnel, tasked to distribute laundry, equipment, food and medicines to the whole building.
Yet we shouldn’t forget where the cutting-edge drive to make robots usable and ubiquitous in our lives comes from - and at least in Europe and America, that’s the military-industrial complex. One company in Boston, iRobot, exemplifies the two-faces of robotics. It makes cute products like Roomba (a disc-like vacuum cleaner that navigates rooms autonomously) and Scooba (which does the same for bathroom floors). But the same tech also enables military robots like FirstLook, mobile video cameras which US soldiers can throw into windows before storming a building.
The US government’s Defense Advance Research and Projects Agency, or DARPA, is notorious for funding the most wild-eyed robotics research. Look up the LS3 - Legged Squad Support System, being developed for the US Army - and be more than a little disturbed. The LS3’s four legs can negotiate the roughest of terrain by itself, while its body can bear fuel and provisions for soldiers.
Yet in its nervy, stuttering walk, it looks like a combination of a horse and a cockroach. One of its most infamous promotional videos shows the device cast upon a frozen lake, where its engineers kick and shove at it, trying but failing to overturn the machine. A war horse, indeed - but usefully insensate to pain or abuse.
A recent TED video showed yet another DARPA-supported project of tiny helicoptered drones, all chattering to each other and flying in formation - grids, figures of eight - and even buzzing out the James Bond theme tune. The drones we know from the wars in Afghanistan are robots remotely guided by humans, thousands of miles away: the writer PW Singer quotes a young air force lieutenant who says "It's like a video game with the ability to kill. It's like ... freaking cool."
Yet what the TED video shows is a spine-tingling degree of self-organisation among these machines. One of the creepier images is where the micro-drones swarm collectively and efficiently though a window, arranging themselves ready for action on the other side. These are robots as pack animals, or an insect swarm - at the fringes of your worst science-fiction nightmare.
But in another video, we see the same drones arranging themselves to steadily build a columnar construction out of rods, moving to a virtual architectural plan programmed into their tiny brains. It doesn’t take too much projecting to see the near-future possibility of building sites requiring much less workers, and much more machines of this precision, labouring tirelessly 24 hours a day.
Undoubtedly we need to exercise a public stake in the advance of automation. Applied purely under a commercial regime, robotisation leaves us with massively efficient factories, offices and industries, but hardly anyone with any wages left to buy the products and services they produce.
The current leaps-forward might compel us to return to those old leisure society arguments again. To what extent should we begin to distribute the gains from our technological ingenuity in a more equitable and collective manner - perhaps with an expanded concept of the “social wage”, and considerably shorter working weeks?
The joke among radicals these days is that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. But I sometimes wonder if it’s even more difficult to imagine a perspective on automation which would subject it to the test of “benefitting the commonality”, as the original Luddites put it - rather than having us just tumble along in the wake of business, military and academic progress.
In short, I’d like to feel better about those wee women standing forlornly at the end of the supermarket check-out, watching their economic redundancy played out with every customer scan.