One of the stories of the 21st Century is the ways our new technology makes us less human -- and our attempts to fight back and create a space to maintain our humanity. The fear of new technology has been a sci-fi staple for as long as the genre has existed. But I believe the feeling that we are being replaced by robots is a distinct thread in that fear – and one that is well-founded in reality.
The dehumanization of persons is a consequence of the humanization of robots. If a role or a task that once seemed uniquely human can be taken over by a robot, that role or task no longer seems an essential part of what it means to be human.
For example, take the game of chess. When I was young, chess was regarded as something like an art form. It was the quintessential example of human intelligence – a chess player was a convenient shorthand for a genius. Chess implied complex, nuanced thinking, and planning. Kubrick used the scene of a machine beating a human at chess in 2001: A Space Odyssey to demonstrate that the computer HAL 9000 was human-like.
That all changed in the 1990s. IBM’s Deep Blue defeated reigning world champion and chess legend Gary Kasparov in a game in 1996 and in a match in 1997. Now, we take it for granted that computers have the advantage against humans not just in chess, but in everything from Jeopardy! to scouting baseball players.
A lot of attention was paid to how Deep Blue’s victories raised the estimation of the way people regard computers. But Kasparov’s loss also equally diminished the social status of chess players. Kasparov is likely to be the last chess celebrity; the last chess player to be a household name. Chess is still seen as a difficult game, to be sure, but I can’t remember the last time I saw the chessboard used as a symbol of intelligence or spirituality the way Kubrick or Bergman used it.
Note that in the Harry Potter franchise, it isn’t the genius character Hermione who plays Wizard Chess, but the dunderhead character Ron. That first Harry Potter book was written during the years of those Deep Blue vs. Kasparov matches.
Chess simply doesn’t matter as much anymore – and neither do its players.
The story of technology displacing human labor is an old one, but we’re in its most dramatic unfolding since the industrial revolution demolished the old arts and dragged knitting and woodworking down from the world of vocations and into the valley of hobbies.
You can easily trace the story’s thread from the 19th Century tales of John Henry being outhammered by steam through Charlie Chaplin’s Depression-era assembly line where man and cog are indistinguishable to HBO’s Westworld, in which the robots appear poised to send homo sapiens the way of the Neanderthal. As the machines progress, the people recede.
Or look at the story of labor over the past 40 years. A factory workers lost their jobs to robots, they also lost their social cachet. No one is romanticizing blue collars anymore.
Two politicians in the 2016 cycle – Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders – had tremendous populist success simply by being the first two politicians in quite some time to give the former workers some attention. Economists say they both misdiagnosed the problem, but railing against free trade seems a little less kooky than blaming the robots.
And yet I still predict we’ll see our first anti-robot presidential candidate from a major party sometime in the next two or three election cycles. Perhaps their rallies could look like the ‘Flesh Fairs’ from A.I. Artificial Intelligence. But I haven’t heard of any actual political solutions to the problem of the massive human job losses that are really only just beginning.
Will actors guilds become the first union to really rise up against technology? The resurrection of Peter Cushing’s image in Rogue One could be just an early stage in this use of CGI. Why pay Robert Downey, Jr. millions for the next Avengers movie when you can just recreate his face? My guess is that Hollywood stars may end up getting more legal protection against their digital replacements than blue collar workers will.
Although the Trumpian, Sandersian popular uprising against free trade won’t save manufacturing jobs, it’s difficult to convince workers not to at least give it a try. I don’t have any real ideas either – and philosophical fatalism won’t save a factory town or create a living wage. Abandoning free trade is a gamble, taken in a hope to reclaim what has been lost.
As technological modernity advances, many people feel they must do something to try and prevent it from completely encroaching on our lives. I believe this effort is what’s driving the ‘pseudo-scientific’ or ‘anti-scientific’ movements of the past decades. Otherwise reasonable people are willing to entertain fringe belief systems in the frenzied rush to erect some sort of defensive barrier against the rapid rise of the machines.
And I believe this goes beyond simple fear of change.
Outside of technology, take the scientific theory of evolution as example. The evidence for evolution is rock solid. I believe Darwin and his successors are basically right. And yet, I find the entire thing unsettling. I hear that some people find the concept that we are descended from animals through the forces of natural selection inspiring or uplifting somehow – but I certainly don’t, and most other people don’t either. Darwin made an advance in knowledge that stripped a certain specialness away from humanity. Where we were once just a little lower than the angels, now we are very clever primates who walk upright. I don’t think there’s any way his discovery is not disnobling.
So I’m left with a small array of choices. I can accept the science and take my diminished role in the universe. Or, I can engage in denial and equivocation and maintain a fuller sense of human dignity.
Hundreds of millions of people who accept nearly all other major scientific theories balk at this one. Our species is instinctively protective of our imagined place in the cosmos.
This dynamic is present in three main areas of organized pushback to the replacement of people with technology. All three deal with the intimate workings of our physical bodies: 1) Medicine, 2) Food, and 3) Sex.
1: Medicine. Technology has proven remarkably effective in treating and preventing human diseases. But that doesn’t mean modern medicine doesn’t have alienating effects.
A biologist looks at the body in a rationalized way – it is a set of parts that works and fits together in a predictable manner and can be manipulated as such. An ethical doctor can examine a body in a “clinical” and “detached” manner that precludes sexuality and certain sentimentalities. The doctor does not relate to the patient in the manner that human beings naturally relate to each other; our intimate problems are to a doctor tasks to be performed during a day at work.
Medicine works, and few of us want to eliminate it. Most of us are happy to take the occasional objectification by a surgeon when the alternative is sickness and death.
The miracles of science are overtaking dystopian science fiction. We have created cyborgs, and we are developing chimeras. David Cronenberg explores the revulsion inherent in modern medical practice in his body horror films.
The anti-vaccine, homeopathic and “natural remedies” movements play on this revulsion. Our technology is not attractive. We wish we could simply eat herbs and drink the right teas and live a healthy life.
2: Food. Revolutions in agricultural, processing and preservation technologies have transformed the way we experience food. We have become so detached from food production that it seems heroic to cook a meal for oneself or to buy something grown in the same county.
The pro-food movement has had some marginal success this century. Inspired by the writings of Michael Pollan and others, many have begun to reclaim food.
There are no clear health benefits from eating GMO-free food, cage-free eggs, raw milk or organic vegetables. But for those who can afford it, it feels better to buy something from the farmer down the street than from a faceless company operating an automated abattoir at an undisclosed location.
Most of the fringes on the pro-food movement are harmless. Americans generally struggle to remember that their chicken came from a chicken, our alienation is so complete.
3: Sex. The Stepford Wives used humanized robots to demonstrate how dehumanized women are when treated as sex objects. Female sexbots have been a staple of science fiction since at least Thea Von Harbou’s script for Metropolis.
Only more recently have real-life men widely acknowledged that women also have sexual desires, and so only recently have we included that anxiety in our fiction. HBO’s Westworld features several examples of robotic men competing with human men sexually. Channel 4/Netflix’s Black Mirror has a poignant example of a romance between a human woman and a robotic man in the episode Be Right Back. (Incidentally, both shows use the themes of robotic resurrection.)
There are other ways that technology has changed sex – and each of them have met with strong pushback. Take online dating for example: have you ever met anyone who hasn’t tried it? And yet each one talks about how terrible it is. Or online pornography. Its use has become nearly universal during the past decade, making allies of both feminists and social conservatives attempting to push back the tide. And like with both the movements for more primitive medicine and food, scientific arguments are incidental to the anti-pornography movement. Porn is distasteful because it can turn people into objects, dehumanizing them.
Despite the widespread anxiety, the almost necessarily physical nature of sexuality appears to insulate itself against total surrender to the machines. Many of us may be perfectly content to each packaged grocery store food for the rest of their lives, but very few find fulfillment in purely electronic relations.
So where do we go from here? Are there places our machines cannot follow us?
Religion and spirituality seems to be the obvious answer. They are both important to our identity as humans and seemingly impossible for robots to authentically replicate. Religion (and Shakespeare) are the signifiers in Westworld that their fictional robots may be becoming sentient.
Free will is another domain that may be all our own. Artificial intelligence may be able to simulate free will through random processes. But will itself, as experienced by each of us on a nearly constant basis, may be too inexplicable for us to program.
Our irrationality is the key difference. This same baseness of origin and composition that so bothers us about Darwin’s discovery may end up being our saving grace – the thing that makes us ultimately irreplaceable in the future.