Monday, July 28, 2014

Trying To Replace Animals With Robots

            What happens when an animal species, that is crucial to the proper functioning of the ecosystems in which we live, starts to die off?  It creates a major threat to the food chain in which we participate for our survival.  The die-off under consideration here is of bees.  The gradual loss of bees endangers the pollination of crops.

            Humans are looking to establish what is causing this die-off.  The most popular theory lately states that a group of deadly pesticides called neonics are killing off the bees.  Another theory has proposed that the cause is the destruction of biodiversity in many living environments leading to a poor diet for the bees.  Both of these causes are based on environmental degradation created by humans. Other additional causes have been suggested such as infections from two different kinds of mites, viruses and fungus. Whatever the reason, there is still a high probability that humans are directly or indirectly involved as a result of changes they have created in the living environment.

            Humans have caused the destruction of other animal species like the dodo bird, but none of these species was crucial to human survival the way that bees are.  Obviously, the loss of organic grounding in many different ways appears to be affecting bees more than many other species.   Not only are bees dying off in large quantities, but colonies of bees are experiencing Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), where the worker bees from the bee colony just suddenly vanish.  It’s scary.   Humans, who are not yet experiencing an unexplained mass die-off, have to find some solution to the ecological gap created by the loss of bees. 

            And a solution is being created: robot bees.  We are now at the point in robotics where we can approximate the functions of a primitive animal and create a flying robot that can act independently enough to pollinate plants.  If we succeed in this, we will have solved the main operational problem of the loss of bees.  And if we succeed in this, we will have a model for dealing with the potential loss of other animal species that disappear as a direct or indirect result of human activities.

            But this is the point where we have to ask whether something irreplaceable is being lost, as we substitute robot bees for animal bees.  Are animal bees necessary for other things besides their defined discrete function of pollination?  If we reduce animal bees to one instrumental function, we are reducing them to being robots.  As important as pollination is, we also need our organic relationship to bees.  And with robot bees, there is no capacity to make, preserve or receive organic imprints.  This is because robot bees deal with defined discrete machine stimuli, not organic blendable flowing continual stimuli.  Their stimuli are built on digital combinations of 1 and 0.  Robot bees will not have the capacity with their presence to create flowing continual experience for other animals.  They just have the capacity to create remote isolated discrete events like the pollination of plants.

            With the loss of each new species to environmental degradation, to the loss of organic grounding, we lose one more unique source of organic imprints.  Each loss of species lessens the total vibrancy of our life experience.

            As we lose sources of organic stimuli from disappearing animals like bees, we gradually slide more into a numbing experiential vacuum.  And as we lose sources of organic imprints, we lose the stimulation we need to turn us on to make our own organic imprints.  We lose our capacity to make and preserve our own organic imprints and, thus, to prepare for death.

            Yes, lots of species have been lost to nonhuman causes in the past.  Natural catastrophes, cosmological events like meteorites hitting the earth, and periods of vast climate change (before humans) have all wiped out many species of dinosaurs.  But these are animals of the past.  Humans never had an ecological connection or an experiential connection with dinosaurs apart from their bones.  Early humans did hunt animals like the mammoth and the mastodon, and probably contributed to their extinction along with climate change.  But when these latter animals became extinct, evolution provided other sources of prey for food, other sources of organic experience for humans.  Evolution is not going to be able to work effectively enough to replace bees or other animal species that may be destroyed in today’s technology-controlled world in such a way that we can find new quick organic sources for both their ecological and their experiential functions.

            On the one hand, I certainly support attempts to find new ways to pollinate crops, if bees are dying off.  It is natural for humans to think of methods that imitate what bees do in order to carry out this process.  However, I am concerned that creating robot bees to do the work of animal bees sets a dangerous precedent.  It can lull people into not worrying quite as much as they should every time a species starts dying off.  After all, people will think they can always turn to technology to create a backup, should a particular species be important to the dynamics of an ecosystem.  This will make people less careful about the introduction of new chemicals or new technological processes to the living environment.

            It will also lead to even more blurring in people’s minds between their senses of self as humans, on the one hand, and the body of processes that make up machine activity, on the other.  Rather than missing the organic experience benefits of being around animal bees, humans will slide more and more into an identification with the wired mechanical complexity of robot bees.  The efficiency of robot bees will mirror efficiency behavior in humans and will be one more component in the network of complex modern machinery to further stimulate efficient robotic behavior in human activity.

            Yes, I know that animal bees sting and robot bees don’t.  Lions and tigers are dangerous, and we don’t want to get rid of them.  They are beautiful animals.  And there are many positive sensory aspects to animal bees as well.  The buzzing of animal bees is part of the music of warm weather in many parts of the world.  And animal bees make honey and robot bees don’t.  They are the only animal that I know of that is capable of bringing sweetness to human life that way.  Finally, animal bees are visually attractive insects that bring color to our flower gardens.  So they add to the positive organic sensory experience of the world by people in multiple ways.

            The dying-off of animal bees is only a partly replaceable loss.  If modern technological society does start using robot bees to replace them, we cannot let that in any way reduce the enormity of the experiential loss in our lives.  Animals are not only sources of function.  They are sources of sensory experience.  And our experience of animals in turn stimulates a sense of organic humanity in each of us.

            By the way, the engineers who are creating robot bees are giving them other functions besides that of pollinating crops.  The robot bees are going to be used for search and rescue missions and for military surveillance among other tasks.  With these additional uses, it is not as if the robot bees are going to be used only as a basic organic replacement for a gap in our ecosystems.  With their disconnected diverse activities, the robot bees are going to act like and be machines whose intrinsic worth is based on a bundle of non-related specific functions.  This is very distinct from animal bees whose worth is based on a cohesive organic identity within an ecosystem.  Getting back to the mind/body dichotomy that I discussed in a previous article, there is something in all organisms, some sentient activity, if not a true consciousness, that allows that organism to leave an organic imprint that is different from a mechanical physical mark.  This sentient activity is built on organic blendable continual stimuli which robot bees won’t have.  Robot bees are built exclusively on the defined discrete stimuli of digital processes.

            If we can’t save the animal bees, and robot bees are the only option for pollinating crops, so be it.  But let us not get smug that we are truly replacing animal bees.  There is a German company called Festo that makes robotic models of many different animals.  If all the sub-human animals on the earth were wiped out and replace with robots, humans would truly be very lonely organisms in a vast vacuum living environment.

The topic for this article was suggested by Chuck Freilich
(c) 2014 Laurence Mesirow

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