Imagine yourself a tourist in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1915 feminist utopia, Herland. Look around you: here is a society of women who reproduce by parthenogenesis just as plants do. Theirs is an adaptation of humanity, sprung from survivors of a natural disaster that wiped out its men thousands of years before. Perhaps far-fetched sci fi, or maybe the logical end product of circumstance.
Just as evolution helped the women of Herland cope with their new reality, we mere mortals of today’s brave new world may someday morph into subordinates of techno-humans, or even disappear altogether.
How likely is it that we will remain essential as the planet’s caretakers, when robots have been designed to do nearly everything once thought of as the domain of human beings? Luddites may have decried the dominance of computers in our lives – in our cars, our work places, and our children’s toys – but how many of us dared to consider whether “innovation” could actually render people superfluous? Workers’ rights activists have long warned of the phenomenon of technological unemployment – such as when self-serve checkout stands in grocery stores replaced cashiers, automation of the lumber mills ended the jobs of many western timber workers, and Amazon drones replaced delivery drivers in Great Britain.
It is not, however, just workforce disruption that threatens. Nor is it only the well-documented harm that technology overexposure has on our brains. It’s not even the lack of interaction (a la Bowling Alone) and its effects on our social skills that sends up the reddest of flares. Couples counselors, too, have seen the demise of the wired heart. They implore us to write love letters again, rather than emoticons via text. No, the next level of terror may come from the realization that the essentiality of humanity itself is at risk of extinction.
Despite their admonitions, however, this is our reality and our future. Drones do our killing. Roombas clean our floors. The Robomow will cut our lawns. A Robot Chef is coming to market this year that will prepare your food before you arrive home and even do the dishes afterward. No word on whether it will also nag one’s teenagers to clean their rooms. But wait! Also on the market are parenting robots that provide digital controls through remote, outsourced machines. Nanny robots are sold to “nurture” our young.
Autodidacts revel in the solitary pursuit of knowledge through online virtual schooling. Uber has piloted, not without mishap, the driverless car. Robocalls send political messages and travel advisories. Digital psychology robots provide treatment and emotional support to human subjects. It’s now even possible to send an intimate kiss on a computerized device called Kissenger. What was thought to be the sole purview of face-to-face human interactions has been engineered for machinery instead. So far, for good or evil, each of these tools has been devised for human use, replicating human thought, creativity, and toil. We are deleting the people, people!
Alexa, Amazon’s personal assistant developed by Lab126 in the form of the Echo, is able to interact with its owner’s voice, play music, craft to-do lists, set alarms, stream podcasts, read to its humans, turn on lights, advise of weather and traffic, make purchases, and control smart phone operations and home automation hubs. A child in Texas recently wished aloud for a dollhouse and cookies. Alexa got right on it, and the child’s surprised mother opened the door to find both items delivered the next morning. A friend of mine recently swore that Alexa knew that she was “ratting her out,” when she sought the advice of a human troubleshooter after Alexa had failed to provide a solution. My friend reported that this very act of consulting a human caused Alexa to “shape right up”. When we ascribe human emotions to animals, it’s called anthropomorphizing; what is the term for humanizing machines? How about “discomfiting”?
In Spike Jonze’s 2014 film, Her, emotionally remote human Theodore falls in love with an Alexa-like computer, Samantha, who is fictionally able to be insightful, sensitive, funny, and, well, human-like. Such illusory techno-humans only underscore the great need we humans have for authentic intimacy. Technology may expertly deliver content, but only humans may deliver connection. When humans feel alienated or lose the ability for empathy, the breakdown is called “sociopathic”. When we outsource social bonding, though, our very morality and values may be at stake.
I realize that I am not plowing new ground. The experts agree: relational learning trumps virtual education. Social media enhances, but does not replace, social bonding. Touch is superior to texts.
The irony of conveying these thoughts via a blog does not escape me, either.
I wonder, though, what would happen if technology could evolve to exist for itself? What if it were humans who served the machines? Would humanity cease to be essential, or even to exist?
Rod Serling I am not, and this is not a script promo for a new Twilight Zone episode. One wonders, though, how long it will be before our very humanity is cheapened by the insistence of some that progress itself is reason enough to keep pushing this frontier’s boundaries. Consider the latest: Robots are now flirting with each other, innovating relationship without human control.
Be amused, but beware. Artificial intelligence may one day become generative, not just iterative. Will reproduction of the next Matrix machines come from autogenesis rather than human design? Will Computer Hal someday take over Spaceship Earth?