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David Bouchier: Mon semblable, mon frere*

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There has been flurry of interest in robotics and automation recently. This is one of those stories that comes and goes. People have been fascinated by automatons since the time of Leonardo da Vinci, and science fiction writers have been speculating about robots and artificial intelligence since the 1920s. But now reality has caught up with imagination, and these futuristic devices are no longer in the future. A lot of people have begun to wonder how we are going to live with robots, and how they will change our lives. The title of one book published last year says it all: The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future by Martin Ford.

The human obsession with robots is awkwardly balanced between fear and hope. We hope that they will take over the nasty, boring and dangerous parts of our lives. Researchers at Columbia have even developed a machine that will do ironing, and robot lawn mowers are everywhere.The machines have already come very far, taking charge on production lines, in operating theaters, and in aircraft cockpits. instead of tedious research we have Google, instead of literacy we have spellcheck and grammar check, and soon, instead of watching the road ahead, we will have automatic braking on our cars, so nobody will ever have to stop talking on the phone.

On the other hand, inspired by the darker side of science fiction, some of us have an uneasy feeling that robots are rather sinister, especially when they assume the form of fake human beings without human feelings. But that should be the least of our worries. Anything that replaces human work with mechanical work is a robot.It comes from a Czech word meaning "forced labor". The question is: who is being forced?

It seems that robots are on the way to mastering every human skill from surgery to teaching and even grading student essays. Economists have estimated that, when everything that can be automated has been automated, between a third and a half of all jobs will vanish. We will have nothing to do and no paycheck to do it with. Nobody seems to have noticed that robots don’t pay taxes like human workers, or that people without paychecks will have no way of buying the goods and services that robots so efficiently create. It seems unlikely that robots will also provide unemployment benefits.

An even more insidious thing about these devices is our attitude towards them. Little by little we come to trust them, and even like them because after all they seem to be doing something for us, even if we are actually doing it for them. What if we learn to love them? How long will it be before some special devices are worshipped? It’s already happened with Apple products whose users are positively evangelical.

It is natural to have strong feelings about things that are important or close to us. Kids adore their stuffed animals, and grownups get angry at their computers. It is the basis of the ancient religions called animist, in which believers may pray to (say) a nearby mountain, or a graven image, or any object they think is sacred. The only problem is that, when you put your faith in a totem pole or a clever machine, your prayers are never answered.

*Mon semblable, mon frère is a quote from Baudelaire – "My likeness, my brother."

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.