Friday, August 21, 2020

Robots here! Robots there! Robots everywhere!

As modern technology invades more and more areas of our daily lives, we are increasingly surrounded by more and more layers of mediated experience.  All the layers of screen reality: movies, television, video games, computers, smartphones, tablets.  The Internet of Things. 3-D printing.  Artificial Intelligence.  Virtual Reality.  So many layers of mediation occupying so many layers of space and time.  And the more that we experience this increasing number of layers of mediated experience, the less we are capable of experiencing and absorbing the primary experience world of nature, more traditional living environments and organic stimulation.  And the less that we can absorb these more natural environments, the less we want to participate in them and the more we are impelled to create more devices that, in effect, replace our participation in more and more areas of primary experience work.  Because as we become more and more numb as a result of all this technological mediation, we become more and more overwhelmed by the few areas of primary experience that are left.

            Anyway, as I have discussed before, I am in an entrepreneur group that lately has been discussing more and more interventions by robotics in modern life.  In particular, two manifestations of robotics have been presented recently.  Both manifestations would eliminate a lot of human jobs at a time when millions of people have lost their jobs due to Covid 19.

            One of them is a robotic system for a fast food type restaurant that creates a completely automated kitchen and service counter.  The system cooks and prepares food as well as presenting it to the public.  There is no participation of humans in any part of the process except in perhaps turning the system on.  The man who presented his invention to the entrepreneur group declared that there has been a “breakdown” in food preparation and service in recent years and that his invention would fix the “problem”.  In the name of a supposed falloff in efficiency, the gentleman was willing to set in motion something that would eliminate a whole bunch of human jobs.  Even before the situation with Covid 19, this would have created a significant problem.  For many people, fast food restaurant jobs are the only jobs that are available given their skill sets, and in some cases, given the status of some of them as immigrants.  For other people, fast food jobs are entry level jobs that teach them about the world of work, so that they can then move on to more skilled higher paying jobs.

            A group of students brought a project to the entrepreneur group that involved a robot driving in uber-style vehicles.  This robot-driven car would be used instead of self-driving cars.  The point of it was that passengers would feel more comfortable in a car driven by a robot rather than a car driven by no one.  A robot could speak and engage passengers in some kind of small talk.  And after all, a robot was some kind of human-like entity to which a passenger could ascribe agency in controlling the vehicle.  For myself, I must confess that neither a robot driver or a self-driving car makes me feel particularly comfortable.  But again, there is the matter of all the lost jobs: Uber drivers, Lyft drivers, taxi drivers.

            For the robotics creators, humans as a whole are being implicitly looked at in terms of planned obsolescence.  Keep humans around in work only when necessary for them to do certain tasks or certain parts of tasks.  Then, as soon as the robots and machines have been tested and perfected enough for them to take over a certain job, phase out the humans.  Pretty soon, this could include practically all of us.  Which is why robotics creators have little sympathy for all the millions of people who have lost their jobs as a result of Covid 19.  The fact that if people aren’t working, they can’t afford to go to fast food restaurants or take Uber rides, just doesn’t seem to occur to the robotics people.

            Somehow, robots are more real for robotics creators than are humans.  Because if humans were considered to be really real, the robotics people would not be so interested in replacing the general population.  The robotics people should realize that not only are they taking away sources of income from human workers, their livelihoods, but also a significant purpose of living as well.  Work is not only important for economic survival, but for psychological survival as well.  Work is one of the main ways that people have to make organic imprints in order to feel alive as well as to preserve imprints in order to prepare for death with a personal surrogate immortality.  When people are unemployed, they fall into the numbing living death of an experiential vacuum.  There are few people who are able to replace work with meaningful hobbies and avocations when they retire.  Which is why so many people literally die of boredom when they retire.

            Eventually, some robotics people will create robots and machines that are smart enough to create their own diverse highly specialized robots and robotic systems, and, at that point, the robotics people themselves will be phased out.  So, at some point, the robotics people are going to have to decide which side they are on: the robots or the people.  Meantime, one might think that it is absolutely inappropriate to create robot fast-food servers and robot drivers at a time when so many people are out of work due to Covid 19.  Inappropriate?  Hell, it is absolutely obscene!

© 2020 Laurence Mesirow 



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