Auto Pilot

You’re in the queue in the bank and the woman comes up to you and says: “What are you in for?”

“Er, to do some banking” you offer defensively.

“Would you like to do use one of these machines that can’t do any of the things you need?” she asks.

“No, I’m fine thanks” you reply quietly wondering that the queue would be so much shorter if she was behind the counter.

Still it’s good to realise that the women will soon be replaced by a gangly door-opening robot dog who will no doubt usher me to an other machine.

Meanwhile, in other news that is sure to bring a glint of romance to even the most cynical eye, Scotland is to be the first place in the UK to open a ‘sex doll brothel’.

The Evening News reports:

“The brothel is ‘serviced’ by a single doll, Faith, which owner Stephen Crawford pimps out for £60 an hour from his semi-detached home in Quarter, a small village near Hamilton.

Crawford told the Sunday Mail : “My doll is called Faith – as in ‘Faith I will succeed.’

The News continues: “Crawford has said he has already had 50 enquiries from men aged between 30 and 40, and had two paying clients already pay Faith a visit.”

Aw, how sweet for Valentine’s Day!

That may have give you the boke – so it’s good to hear that we’re outsourcing killing as well as sex.

The US Navy has announced a crewless drone-ship. It’s a brutal grey trimaran thing that skids across the sea ‘hunting’ submarines by radar.

“The machine could usher in a new era for military warships as it is designed to travel thousands of miles without a single crew member on board.”

Watch ‘Sea-Hunter’ at work here.

So that’s money, sex and death taken care of. Shopping too. As some joker pointed out the other day, “In Communist countries you have one giant store with sub-standard goods to chose everything from” posted next to a photo of a gigantic Amazon store.

There’s not much of this that’s attractive or alluring. It’s like some fresh hell that is being imposed completely divorced from social utility.

The idea of technology as ‘liberator’ seems further and further away as social media, ‘tech’ and automation descend on an already ravaged society. The gap between the excitement of technology and the reality is becoming a gulf. It’s like the gap between the air travel experience of Frank Abagnale and Dr. David Dao.

As Irvine Welsh writes:

“As citizens, we justly mistrust the ‘unprecedented times’ mantra. After all, it would seem to give implicit emergency powers to elites whose behaviour has precipitated such crisis. Most people, justifiably, want to simply get on with life and make progress without being burdened by external threats and upheavals. Indeed, much of Conservatism’s power as a political creed is that it taps into the compelling illusion of this possibility. But in an era where we face species-threatening imperatives on population, climate, a broken financial system, flatlining growth and real wage reductions, it’s fanciful to imagine that we can sustain this delusion.

These factors, in conjuncture with our information technology revolution, are pushing us towards a different set of social relationships and a new type of society. Now the dispassionate view is one that used to be reserved for neo-Marxists; it sees Western capitalism in technologically driven decline, with its ability to provide economic growth and employment prospects for its citizens rapidly receding.

Our awe of the latest technological advances, with robots like Baxter, Watson and Kiva being given the C3PO/R2D2 media treatment, bizarrely means that the notion of ‘machines taking our jobs’ still retains a sci-fi extravagance in our imaginations. However, this is simply the historical reality of industrialisation. What is totally unprecedented is the scale and speed at which this is happening. In Britain, Deloitte and the University of Oxford have predicted that 10 million unskilled jobs could be taken over by robots.”

The startling thing about the bank queue, Faith, Boston Dynamics and the Sea-Hunter is not that they look and feel dystopian but that they are here now. People have been saying this for some time but suddenly it’s here.

Marshall McLuhan predicted our current Infowars nightmare almost fifty years ago writing in “Culture Is Our Business” (1970):

“World War III is a guerrilla information war with no division between military and civilian participation.”

This morning the radio informs us that software has been developed to stop the spread of terrorism propaganda online.

That seems, even if technically feasible, a little optimistic.

Almost everything now has a technical solution, even if it’s clearly not a technical problem. So world hunger will be resolved (somehow) by GM. Climate change will be ‘solved’ by carbon capture and storage. This is redolent of a society that has run out of ideas, the only idea left is: technology.

Welsh again:

“Automation, the reduction of the need for people in jobs, was once seen as a positive process, liberating us from backbreaking, mind-numbing routine work. We could enjoy more leisure and holidays, make love and write poetry, go canoeing and abseiling. Karl Marx, despite the grim Soviet experience of communism, and the relentless distortion of his ideas, was primarily interested in human freedom: the removal of external dictates by other individuals and systems.”

” …automation, once identified as both the route to a possible anarchist utopia and the destruction of the worker’s consciousness and psychological wellbeing, is increasingly associated with a future of stagnant income and worsening inequality under a crumbling capitalism.”

On Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, or whatever you want to call it we should reflect and re-start.

I think we maybe have this thing the wrong way round.


Comments (4)

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  1. SleepingDog says:

    Maybe we’re going to need the equivalent of a National Health Service for robots (and WEEE retirement depots). I see no indication that scaling up to mass robotic replacement of humans on a commercial basis is yet feasible. Prototypes are one thing; you don’t see the failures, rejects, scrapheaps. The planet is already apparently running low on scarce materials for mobile phones.

    Software upgrades/patching are often complex (and not necessarily cheap either) but competitive robot upgrades (assuming proprietary standards and largely non-interoperable components) could be vastly more expensive. Product recalls, software bans, test and compliance regimes will all be much more affected by accidents (or attacks) which harm humans (especially ones provoking concern through vulnerability/innocence) than some of our security-focused systems (and security will be a big part of free-roaming robotic compliance).

    Artificial intelligence is something else. Given the poor standard of human governance, perhaps it could bring benefits there. Networked humans have the capacity to be information-processing nodes with a stake and lived experience in the real world, which could be really valuable, although it has got off to rather a poor start, I guess. Perhaps augmented humans connected to a constellation of networked robots will do many jobs requiring large teams today. Hopefully not like the Controller in Star Trek episode Spock’s Brain, though.

    Mind you, if our culture cannot get humans to care en masse for their environment, are AI robots really going to be any worse? Maybe better (Silent Running).

    1. Interpolar says:

      Yes. And if we could just get the robots to consume and vote, buy cars and go on holiday, then it would really rock. Society, and more importantly the economy, would function in an orderly and obedient fashion without us. And I‘m writing this as an antequated blood-and-flesh model currently being replaced by a slew of automatic made-in-Russia surrogates that do not make any spelling mistakes and whose political views can be adequately choreographed.

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Interpolar, whether hardware or software, robot or AI, these entities will typically have large consumption footprints (materials, energy, services and so on). However, due to the complexity of systems where behaviourally-adaptive robots increasingly interact with one another, I’d foresee chaos rather than order being characteristic of a commercial free-for-all.

        That’s probably not going to happen in the near future at least because many of these free-roaming robots (like self-driving cars) are predicted to be effectively uninsurable. Definitively assigning culpability in cases of accidental injury, for example, is a real challenge. Think of how much legalese accompanies a mobile phone software upgrade and multiply exponentially. Hardware manufacturer, designer, software publisher, potential hacker, user error, third/fourth parties, civil licensing authorities, environmental upkeep authorities…: attributing blame will likely keep courts tied up after the first few claims. Of course, the legal system may be upgraded with AI support to mitigate this.

        One problem is that machine learning methods may create black boxes where the behaviours cannot be predicted by code analysis (as is already happening: some automated evaluation systems are being challenged on this basis, as you cannot disprove internal bias). Therefore certification for safety is really difficult in those cases.

        Unless the liability is somehow waived and/or the risks socialised (perhaps like in wartime? I don’t know how claims are handled then), then I suspect that actuaries will be vetoing cover (at least until they are replaced by AI).

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