Friday 19 June 2015

SMARTS Update: Smart Sex Robots and The Grocer's Apprentice

A male friend sent me a bunch of links to robotics stories last week because my new book SMARTS tells stories about the founders of machine intelligence. The first was about an autonomous sex robot. Not only will 'she'-- of course it's a she -- be able to give pleasure, she'll be able to hold up her end of a smart conversation too, or so the story said. Just what I need! the friend said to me, knowing every feminist bone in my body would catch fire with outrage. The other link was to a story about a British internet grocery company, Ocado. (It claims to be Britain's Amazon of food though it serves only two biggish UK cities and took 15 years to turn its first profit.) Ocado announced its intention to aid the development of autonomous robots that will be smart enough to act as human workers' apprentices. These clever machines will know when to hand up the right screwdriver without being asked, even anticipating the workers' needs by body position.

Here's the problem: when and if such robots are deployed, what about those youths who want to enter trades? Where will they go to learn? Nowhere: they'll have to join the ranks of the forever jobless, or the Precariat. They might have plenty of spare time to play with smart sex robots, but they won't be able to afford them.
Can't keep up with this, my friend said.

No kidding.

Because the rise of smart autonomous machines is already exponential. Each clever system begets 10 more with better tricks. And as they rise, so does their dark side grow. This week, those hackers known as Anonymous, pissed off at the Government of Canada for passing Bill C-51 (which allows Canadian spies to do things under warrant from a federal court judge that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms forbids) used distributed denial of service attacks to shut the governments' websites and email systems down -- for hours. The government appeared to be unable to cope though the Minister in charge assured us no private or personal information had been taken. (How did he know? He didn’t.) This sort of thing could not have happened before this generation of smart machines and smarter networks. And yet, in all the stories floating around on the Net about the advent of autonomous robots, there is rarely a mention of what will inevitably go wrong. 

Start with the massive restructuring of capital that is already taking place around us, shifting from the investment bankers in New York to the libertarian billionaires of Silicon Valley. As control of capital moves to new hands producing autonomous machines, major political realignments will follow.  Why? Throughout the West, center and center- left political parties have long relied on organized labor to politically educate their members about their real interests and get their voters to the polls. But human labor is being replaced by ever smarter machines that don't strike and don't bargain. The unionized percentage of the labor force is being driven down from around thirty percent toward single digits. Soon the middle classes, whose administrative and intellectual skills have guaranteed good jobs at high wages, will also see their jobs evaporate--- as software that learns takes over everything from middle management decision making, to complex strategic analysis, to brain surgery. Unless we are willing to give the vote to machines, a greater concentration of political power will result. The numbers of those on the outside looking in will keep growing. So will the rivers of money already flowing from the obscenely rich to political action groups and third party campaigns. Lobbyists, supported by that money and working through organizations like ALEC, are already writing laws that legislators move through legislatures. These trends will become the norm.

For those who own the companies developing autonomous machines, putting a Smiley face on this future is critical. That’s why their marketing follows an old and proven pattern that goes right back to Renaissance Florence. Stories in the papers and on the Net usually frame autonomous robots as the means to solve really difficult human problems, such as caring for the sick and the old without going bankrupt or having deep conversations with your sex toy. In ancient Florence, the Medicis got their start in business selling useless pills to cure the ailments of the flesh: they sold gold pills to the rich, red pills to everybody else. Then they branched out into banking and soon they ran Florence. A similar cure-all come on was used by Nobel laureate James D. Watson to winkle $2 billion out of parsimonious governments for the human genome project. He made big promises about how sequencing all our genes would solve the mystery of cancer (as opposed to enabling the curiosity of the scientists getting the grants). Surprise: the genome was sequenced by the year 2000 yet cancer is still with us. We learned that ‘ genes’ are iffy constructs at best, and only tell part of the story of how bodies develop and how disease erupts. The number of those stricken with cancer is projected to grow by 40% in the next few decades. The same strategy was used with regard to stem cell research. Long before there was any evidence, we were constantly told that stem cell research will lead to a cure for Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injuries, etc.  Still waiting!

We are being told now that smart autonomous machines will do the jobs no one likes to do, like changing an old person’s diapers. This apparently goes over well in Japan (where energy expended on the development of autonomous robots has been relentless). The Japanese population is rapidly aging and sufficiently xenophobic to preclude importing large numbers of poor people from other cultures to do this work.  The personal aide-type autonomous robots being advertised now are cute, toy-like, and will only cost about $10,000, way cheaper than the wages of a personal care worker. Now we are told they have been given ‘feelings’ too, or at least the capacity to simulate them. (If they had actual emotions, they might acquire real rights: no one will want to go that far.) These sweet little machines can laugh and even tear up at appropriate moments. That story made the CTV national news.

Robotics and artificial intelligence research are being marketed so hard because this is a critical time in their development. A great deal of public money has been used to get the basic research done. The European Union is one of the most aggressive funders. In the US, DARPA has led the way with grants and prizes given to very large and profitable companies. Google has been buying robotics companies funded by DARPA at a startling rate even as it tries to back-engineer the human brain to make these robots smarter. Yet no Congressional committees,  or House of Commons committees have been asking hey, wait, have you considered....? The failure of legislators to create a body of law and regulation to shape the intelligent robots of our future has caused even technology mavens such as Bill Joy, Elon Musk, and important scientists such as Stephen Hawking, to issue warnings. Yet these warnings are ignored by those with the power to act. Why? 

It’s the lure of future growth in GDP. The usual suspect economists argue that smart innovation is the way of the future. If we don’t build these machines, our competitors will, so we need to get out front and stay there. With the exponential rise of autonomous smart machines, they tell us, wealth will increase exponentially too. Funny thing though. The question, whose wealth, is rarely raised. 

So let’s raise it here. Those who stand to benefit most from the wealth that flows from autonomous machines are the largest shareholders of the companies that own the most important patents. Those shareholders do not want rules and regulations in place that might limit the possibilities for profit. Some may have been motivated to enter these fields for different reasons than getting rich. Several have said they just wanted to build the machines featured in the science fiction they read as children. But when one becomes responsible for a giant business whose shares trade to the public, other imperatives take hold.

It falls to the rest of us to think about what kind of society we want to live in and to insist that we must quickly make the decisions about changes that will affect us all. If we fail to do that, if we find ourselves on the trash-heap of history kowtowing to the overlords who own the smart machines, we'll have no one to blame but ourselves.

A footnote: In 200l, I published a book called Bones: Discovering the First Americans. It featured the story of an 8500 year old skeleton found at the edge of the Columbia River in Washington State and dubbed Kennewick Man. This skeleton had a skull that was characterized as "Caucasoid"  by the first physical anthropologist who studied it, James Chatters, giving support to others' suggestions that ancient Europeans were the First Americans, arriving on North American shores long before the peoples we call Native Americans immigrated from Asia. After examining what evidence was available then, I argued that we should pay more attention to the origin stories of Native Americans which seemed to place them here at the beginning of the Last Ice Age or in a period preceding its final melt. These stories make no mention of long sea voyages from distant shores. This week's issue of Nature reports on the sequence of ancient DNA taken from Kennewick Man and compared to a modern sequence derived from a sample from a member of the local Colville tribe. Shortly after the skeleton's discovery, this tribe claimed Kennewick Man as their ancestor and went to court to try and get the right to rebury him. They failed. The skeleton is still held at a local museum so it is available for study.

The DNA sequences of Kennewick Man and the Colville tribe member turn out to be closely related suggesting Kennewick Man is indeed a Colville ancestor. The leader of the study, a Danish scholar named Eske Willerslev, told reporters that he thinks more attention should be paid to Native American origin stories. He intends to pay more attention himself in future.

All journalists like to say I told you so if we get it right. So here it is: I told you so.


  1. Just read this locally .. .. seems to give that date '2030' as the magic number again .. elders needing care .. presto .. robots ready in the 'smart' culture.