Inside the Information Society: Do we understand the role robots play in our lives?

Each week David Souter comments on an important issue for APC members and others concerned about the Information Society. This week's blog post looks at the role robots play in our lives. 

Robots are talked of more and more these days. Like implants (last week’s post) they’ve moved from science fiction to present reality. Instead of fantasizing over them, we need to understand the role they’re playing in our lives and going to play in them in future. That’s more immediate than we imagine, and, like most things in the Information Society, it’s changing fast. We need to think about what it means for us and the nature of the Information Society in which we want to live.

The word ‘robot’ is used in two very different ways, and confusing these won’t help us if we want to shape the way we interact with robots’ roles. Popular culture first, and then banal reality.

Robots in popular culture

In popular culture, we imagine robots as replacement humans. We think of those we see in films and TV or read in science-fiction. In popular culture, robots (usually) look at least a bit like us – move like us, talk like us, appear to think like us. They’re humanoid (to some degree at least). We (or our descendents) co-exist with them. They become our friends or enemies.

Robots in popular culture don’t just do one or two specific tasks. They’re full-fledged individuals, capable sometimes of being mistaken for us, sometimes of displacing us.

In our dreams they do our chores. In our fantasies they save us from disaster. In our fears they take our jobs. In our nightmares they take over the government from us.

The fear of robot servants turning into masters has been there since the word was coined, in a 1920s play by the Czech writer Karel Capek. His Rossum’s Universal Robots, like so many later models in popular culture started as our servants and ended up our rulers.

There’s a similar thrill of fear to Isaac Asimov’s famous ‘three laws of robotics’, which (I paraphrase) say that robots must not injure humans, must obey humans, and must not put their interests before those of humans.

The robots in Asimov’s world, to whom those laws would apply, are hyper-capable replacement people. But those aren’t the robots of reality. They aren’t the robots that affect our lives today, or whose roles we should be thinking about how to manage.

Robots in reality

In reality, of course, the robots that we have around us are very rarely, almost never android in appearance (see below). Nor are they multitasking miracles.

We’ve had robots in our factories and workplaces for years. They don’t have wide-ranging capabilities; they do specific tasks or have specific functions, mostly industrial, sometimes military, occasionally to do with welfare. They make things in our factories, handle things in our labs and mines, fire warning shots at our enemies. They’re used to undercut the costs of human labour, or replace it where that labour’s dangerous, repetitive or inefficient.

They’re not made to look like us because there’d be no point in that. They’re made to do a job and configured accordingly; and we’re not well configured for the jobs they’re made to do. They’re engineered for stamina and purpose, not glamour and autonomy.

These are the robots that should concern us, then. They’re aren’t futuristic; they’re here and now, fact not fiction. Their role in our economies and societies is significant, growing and increasing in potency, and it’s this we need to work out how to manage. I’ll suggest two aspects here: first, continuity; then its opposite.

First, continuity

First, real robots aren’t so novel as we think. They follow a long line of innovations that have made us wonder, enabled us to do things that we couldn’t do ourselves, or done things more efficiently than we could do them. We’ve adapted to these innovations, and have relevant experience from doing so.

I visited an exhibition recently on their history, at London’s Science Museum. That did not begin with Capek’s play (see above) but with pre-industrial objects – religious ‘wonders’ made by medieval craftsmen; clocks and chronometers that calculated time and motion for us; automata (three-dimensional clockwork models that looked like magic to those who saw them in the eighteenth century); the ‘spinning jennies’ and other machines of the industrial revolution that enabled mass production.

It was a reminder that ‘robots’ continue generations of creative innovation (some of it much more creative than the pallid humanoids to be seen at the end of the Museum show). Today’s robots are doing much the same to our economies and societies, to business models and to jobs, as previous innovations. They’re making human processes more efficient, faster, cheaper, displacing labour in the process and enabling new types of work, products and services. We should not ignore the ways we’ve dealt with previous innovations when dealing with these new ones.

But also, discontinuity

But, second, there’s discontinuity as well. Real robots, like other aspects of the Information Society with which they’re co-evolving, are in a process now of much more rapid change than previous innovations, and bring together many new technologies.

Most robots we’ve seen to date have been limited in their capabilities. Computers have had a bigger impact on people’s lives than robots have, supplementing mental skills in much the way we think of robots supplementing physical skills.

That may not be the case for too much longer. The most interesting aspects of the second half of the Museum’s history show were those that looked at interaction between robotics and other aspects of the Information Society; at the combination of physical and intellectual capabilities inherent in the interaction of robotics with artificial intelligence, machine learning, the Internet of Things and widespread digitalization.

Robots, like/as computers, will become much more capable. Increased processing power will make them capable of doing more things more efficiently, more quickly and more cheaply than we can. They will take over further roles from us, which is why they promise to improve our quality of life in some ways and threaten it in others.

What should we want from this?

This is, of course, just another way of talking about ‘the second machine age’ or ‘the fourth industrial revolution’ – a step change in technology resulting from continual improvements in the capability of digital devices and the rapid innovation which that’s fueled.

There are aspects of this that will (and should) excite our imaginations, and others that will (and should) excite anxiety. The challenge is to work out ways in which we can ensure that their impact on our economies, societies and cultures is determined by us rather than by the way technology evolves.

And we’ll only do that if we think of real robots in real environments rather than fantasy robots in science-fiction ones. Asimov’s laws of robotics don’t apply to these real robots. But we should be asking how to govern their actual impacts on employment, economies and lives before those impacts become ungovernable.

Next week, some thoughts on UNCTAD'S Information Economy Report about e-commerce and the digital economy in developing countries.

Image: Exhibition at the Science Museum in London, 2017. Author : Andrew Teague

More about David Souter