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Opinion: Are Roboticists Ignoring the Consequences?

Poli Psy


Published November 6, 2013 at 6:49 a.m.


Unemployed? Sent out 500 résumés? Earned another degree? Done everything humanly possible to get a job?

Well, there’s your problem: You’re human. A robot is better than you.

“Until recently, most robots were carefully separated from humans,” writes John Markoff in the New York Times. These robots looked like machines and “perform[ed] repetitive tasks that required speed, precision and force,” primarily in factories. “But the industrial era of robotics is over,” he adds.

Thanks to innovations such as “low-cost sensors” and “new algorithms,” robots are starting to look like us, move like us and react like us. And if the worshippers of technology have their way, they will replace us.

Soon a “social robot” will be caring for your mother, greeting you at the front desk and giving you therapy.

For a while now, technologists have been suggesting that human contact, and consciousness, are overrated. Developers of computer-assisted cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy software, for instance, have shown that a voice in a box is just as effective in treating depression as a person in a leather Eames chair.

And then there’s Bina48 — the African Americanish Frubber-skinned “mechanical animatronic bust” created in Bristol, Vt., and interviewed by Seven Days a few weeks ago. Bina48’s conversational abilities still resemble those of a 2-year-old with a hearing impairment, a precocious vocabulary and ADHD. Yet her “mindfile” — bits of the memories, tastes, phraseology and history loaded into her by her namesake, a real woman named Bina Rothblatt — is reportedly growing more worldly, responsive and, well, personable. Taking Bina48’s creators at their word, reporter Megan James writes that “the talking head is proof that it’s possible to upload human identity into a robot.”

Many, probably most, cognitive scientists would scoff at the idea that Bina48 is “proof” of any such thing. On its face, there is a vast gulf between the academically respected roboticists quoted in the Times and Bina’s creators, who call themselves “transhumanists.” But while “roboticist” denotes a profession and “transhumanist” a philosophy — that technology can and should create superior versions of humanity, aka eugenics — the two overlap to a scary degree.

The latter have the money and the legal freedom to do what the former are doing. Bina48’s financier, the wife (formerly husband) of the flesh-and-blood Bina, is a multimillionaire Vermonter, Martine Rothblatt. But, just as troubling, many legitimate scientists believe as the transhumanists do that technology is god.

Who are the transhumanists? Rothblatt is an important one. She is the founder — and prophet — of the “trans-religion” Terasem, whose belief is that we can create “joyful immortality” by uploading all consciousness into “mindfiles,” thus freeing humans from their bulky, fallible “fleshware.”

Among the Truths of Terasem (which came to Rothblatt in a vision involving the Columbia space shuttle and a leatherback turtle): “Death is optional.”

Depletion of the planet’s resources by a never-dying population does not concern Terasem’s faithful because, Rothblatt prophesies, the mindfiles, some in defrosted cryogenically preserved bodies, will emigrate from this “fragile” planet to some place more congenial. What endangers Earth, by the way, is not global warming but the planet’s proximity to the center of the galaxy.

Aside from being insane, this vision would surely be anathema to many roboticists. Charlie Kemp, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, for instance, has a soft spot for warm bodies. “Things are not the same when you’re interacting with people,” he avers in the Times. On his website he warns visitors that he might not respond to email: “I prioritize, and much prefer, face-to-face, in-person communication.”

Nevertheless, Kemp and his colleagues are using their highly educated brains to lower labor costs and increase productivity by computerizing the face-to-face occupations that once were reserved for big-brained, carbon-based bipeds. “That’s where we want robots to be,” Kemp says. “It’s where we see there are huge opportunities for robots.”

Might it be a problem that huge opportunities for robots translate into slim opportunities for people? That the industrial era isn’t over just for robots, it’s over for American factory workers, too? That, according to the Economic Policy Institute, there are so few positions in business and the professions that more than half of working college grads under the age of 24 hold jobs like waiting tables and selling jeans, which don’t require an education?

Do we really want to robotize the last jobs standing — like home health aides or hospital techs — whose most salient qualification may be the human capacity for compassion?

The roboticists do not dwell quite as far from earthly reality as the Terasemites. But a common denominator among creators of “posthuman” beings — whether by bio-, nano- or cybertechnology — is their striking disregard of unintended consequences.

Or — more frightening still — their embrace of consequences many of us consider unspeakable.

The prominent Princeton molecular biologist Lee Silver, for instance, foresees the day when there will be two human species — the standard-issue “Naturals” and the GenRich, created over time by affluent, ambitious parents purchasing genetic “enhancements” in intelligence, beauty or athletic prowess for their babies-to-be. Because once genetic material is altered, and it gets passed into future generations, the two species will eventually be as distinct as apes are from humans. Silver supports human genetic engineering and cloning. He’s blithe about writing our deepening global social inequality into our DNA.

Compared with Silver’s vision, making a coffee-fetching bot — and not stopping to think about the secretaries who will be put out of jobs — is benign naïve optimism.

Still, plenty of scientific futurists think consumer eugenics is inevitable. A community whose research is driven by corporate grants and the promise of multimillion-dollar patents — and inconvenienced by popular resistance to pursuits such as stem-cell research or animal cloning — they share a faith in the free market to solve all problems, and create none. Go to any futurist conference, and you’ll find an overwhelming number of libertarians.

Much like the Christian Right, some transhumanists add religious fundamentalism to their market fundamentalism. The mission of Terasem — “diversity, unity and joyful immortality” — will be “ensured” in part by “universal adherence to the principles of Terasem,” according to its credo. Sounds like the Rapture.

And, just as in the Rapture, some will be left behind.

“God is technological,” proclaims one Truth of Terasem. In the future, “the machines [will] use their exponentially growing knowledge and ethical nanotechnology to convert universal random mass and energy into ubiquitous intelligent mass and energy that, networked together, will be a force capable of controlling cosmic physics. As the collective consciousness becomes increasingly omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent, it will realize the age-old vision of a benevolent God.”

Talk about unintended consequences. Rothblatt’s utopia is precisely the dystopia envisioned by science-fiction writer Fredric Brown 60 years ago. In his story “Answer,” scientists have succeeded in linking the computers from all of the galaxy’s 96 billion planets. The chief scientist flips the switch and asks the mega-computer the first question: “Is there a God?”

A “mighty voice” answers: “Yes, now there is a God.” Before the terrified man can reach the switch to turn the monster off, a bolt of lightning smites him down and fuses the switch closed.

As Kemp says, there are huge opportunities for robots.

Poli Psy is a monthly column by Judith Levine. Got a comment on this story? Contact [email protected].

The original print version of this article was headlined "'God Is Technological'"

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