Sunday, September 14, 2014

Masters and Slaves

If you haunted the public libraries at some point in your life and had a taste for science fiction, you read a lot about robots.

It wasn’t always a pretty picture.  Robots would either become an entity unto themselves and enslave each and every one of us or cause us to question our own humanity.

In Issac Asimov’s “I, Robot,” the androids are programmed to do no harm to their human overlords but a suspicious suicide points the finger of blame at a robot which spells big trouble for the human race.

Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” a bounty hunter is faced with "retiring" six escaped androids while a secondary plot follows a man of sub-par IQ who aids the fugitive androids. At play here is what it is to be human.

In Karel Capek’s “Rossum’s Universal Robots,” artificially manufactured people  are happy to work for humans, then a rebellion breaks out, causing the extinction of the human race.  It was written in the 1920s.

Indeed, the question of who is slave and who is master is already making itself known in the real world.

New research coming out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab suggests that letting robots have control over human tasks in manufacturing is not just more efficient — it’s actually preferred by workers.

Specifically, in the study, groups of two humans and one robot worked together in one of three conditions: manual (all tasks allocated by a human); fully autonomous (all tasks allocated by the robot); and semi-autonomous (one human allocates tasks to self, and a robot allocates tasks to other human).

The fully-autonomous condition proved to be not only the most effective for the task, but also the method preferred by human workers. The workers were more likely to say that the robots “better understood them” and “improved the efficiency of the team.”

All of which makes we wonder if we are so world weary, so skeptical about the future of the planet that we are prepared to hand the car keys to the human race over to robots.

They couldn’t do worse.  They just might do better. Take the wheel, HAL.

That day is closer than you may think.  Consider this:

Harvard University scientists have devised a swarm of 1,024 tiny robots that can work together without any guiding central intelligence.

Like a mechanical flash mob, these robots can assemble themselves into five-pointed stars, letters of the alphabet and other complex designs. No humans needed.

Even scarier is a robot called BINA48, created and programmed by David Hanson of Terasem Movement and modeled after the co-founder of Terasem’s wife, Bina Rothblatt, according to the website Listverse.

While everyone can agree that BINA48 has an uncanny physical resemblance to an actual person, what makes the robot so groundbreaking is that she is actually made up of the real Bina’s thought, memories, emotions, and feelings.

BINA48 now has the ability to hold conversations on a number of topics using the actual Bina’s mannerisms. BINA48 also has the ability to continually learn, and her vocabulary and knowledge continues to grow each day that she interacts with other humans.

Not only can BINA48 make choices on her own based on her past memories and tastes, she is also learning to reinforce her decisions with data and reasons.

Then there’s this:  By some estimates, before the end of this century, 70 percent of today’s occupations will be replaced by automation.

A not so fanciful scenario by Kevin Kelly, writing in Wired, put it this way:

“First, machines will consolidate their gains in already-automated industries. After robots finish replacing assembly line workers, they will replace the workers in warehouses.

“Speedy bots able to lift 150 pounds all day long will retrieve boxes, sort them, and load them onto trucks. Fruit and vegetable picking will continue to be robotized until no humans pick outside of specialty farms. Pharmacies will feature a single pill-dispensing robot in the back while the pharmacists focus on patient consulting.

“Next, the more dexterous chores of cleaning in offices and schools will be taken over by late-night robots, starting with easy-to-do floors and windows and eventually getting to toilets. The highway legs of long-haul trucking routes will be driven by robots embedded in truck cabs.”

What’s next, robotic reporters?  You bet your sweet press pass.

The Los Angeles Times is already using an algorithm called Quakebot that extracts data from U.S.Geological Association reports, plugs it into a template and produces a story.

The Associated Press is using story-writing software to automate stories on corporate earnings.

What’s missing in this equation is judgment,   That’s why a story on a 3.0 earthquake in, say, Eureka, ends up front and center on the Times website, even though it is a minor occurrence of dubious news value. 

Or that an automatically generated earnings report story lacks any kind of analysis or context. 

That’s not to say that some stone-faced android will someday be cranking out quality journalism.

 Or that his or her comrades will be cleaning your teeth. Or cutting your hair. Or fixing you coq au vin for dinner. Or remodeling your bathroom.  Or doing your taxes.

And if they do, what if robots one day evolve to the point that they demand the same citizen's rights as humans? Will they vote?  Pay taxes?

It seems clear that the day of the androids will surely come. How we use them may be one of the most pivotal questions in human history, one that will overshadow all that has come before.

As the old Chinese curse says, “May you live in interesting times.”

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. He can be reached at Nulede@Aol.Com.

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