An Optimist’s Guide to our Robot Future

Human beings are pessimistic about the future. There seems to be a knee-jerk “let’s invest in a bomb-shelter” reaction whenever we hear about advancements in technology. News about developments in artificial intelligence stir up fears of robot uprisings, dystopias, and Arnold Schwarzenegger showing up at your house with the intention to kill you. Can you honestly remember the last futuristic film by Hollywood to feature a happy and content society? You can’t because it doesn’t exist. But perhaps there is an alternative to this impulsive hysteria. Maybe the future is bright and sunny with plenty of technological developments to be optimistic about. Clearly the current work being done in artificial intelligence and nanotechnology is changing our society and culture at its very core. For thousands of years there has been one distinction between humans and the objects of their invention and that is: living and non-living things. Now the possibility of robot maids, artificial friends, and even sentient homes lie just beyond the horizon. And maybe—just maybe—it won’t lead to the apocalypse.

Some even see the many developments in technology as a good thing for the human race. Inventor and celebrity futurist Ray Kurzweil believes in something he refers to as “the singularity”—which is an event he predicts will happen within three decades when computers surpass human intelligence. When this happens, Kurzweil believes humans and machines will merge into one being. We will become immortal and the robot uprising will be avoided—because we will essentially be the robots. Less grandiose in his visions of the future is theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, who points out all the good things new technology has done for the mentally disabled and other disenfranchised people. In his book, The Future of the Mind, he illustrates the way in which artificial intelligence and cognitive science have helped lead to technology that can help people with multiple sclerosis. While it’s still early days with the technology, there have been tests and experiments performed that link the human mind with artificial arms and wheel chairs. Thanks to artificial intelligence there will soon be a future where people with MS won’t be paralyzed within their own bodies.

As for the arguments many skeptics have that such future technologies will be monopolized and wielded only by the super rich, Kaku points out that most technologies—like the cellphone or computer for instance—weren’t very good when first invented and it is, ironically, at that point when they are the most expensive. As scientists and developers learn how a technology works, it improves and also gets cheaper until it can be consumed by the masses. Just consider how now everybody has a smart phone!

Artificial intelligence is not only being applied to robots or the mentally or physically disabled but is a technology also being utilized in the building of homes and our surrounding environments. We already see this today with the use of smart technology in homes. This includes automated security lights, timed radiators and air conditioners, and probably most well known: automated vacuum cleaners like the Roomba. But if anyone’s seen a Roomba in practice: it’s far from perfect and usually needs a lot of maintenance and help to vacuum an entire apartment. Carole Ann Moleti at Lightspeed Magazine astutely points out that humans will have to redesign environments that allow robots and smart homes to function properly. She writes: “Robots [will not make] life convenient for us. It’s more likely that our houses, our food, and our cities will be remade to make life easy for the robots … that make our life easy.” In other words, we are far away from having fully automated sentient homes. Nevertheless, technology is working towards that goal. One of the potential benefits would be for the elderly. Robotic nurses and homes could mean that the elderly wouldn’t have to move out into care facilities. Such an example really shows the positive impacts of artificial intelligence and how the notion of a robot uprising is so much more reductive and simple-minded in comparison; humanity more frequently fears the unknown rather than embracing it.

Those feeling nostalgic for our current urban landscape and don’t want to see it turned into some boring robot-friendly environment should consider that 1) architectural styles are always changing and 2) 3D printing will alter our landscape just as much, if not more, than robotic friendly homes. Softskill Design, an UK architecture firm, are currently working on a single story home made of plastic via 3D printing in a factory. Softskill designer Gilles Retsin explains that, “Now with 3D printing you can achieve a strong, fibrous structure using less material than a normal structure.” 3D printing will make the construction of a building less wasteful, cheaper, and more time-efficient. Imagine the possibilities after a natural disaster destroys thousands of homes—3D printing can help bring shelter to people in dire circumstances.

As you can see, developments in artificial intelligence and other technologies don’t necessarily spell dystopian or apocalyptic futures. Perhaps this is a cultural thing of the West. As Kaku points out, in Japan people are less terrified by robots. The scientist believes it has something to do with the Shinto religion, “which believes spirits live in all things, even mechanical robots.” So perhaps it’s just us in the West, who are more inclined to see things cynically. Robot psychiatrists couldn’t get here soon enough.

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