Human Learning: Cry, Robot?

Humans have had a longstanding love-hate relationship with robots. In the cinematic realm alone, there’s been a pendulum effect ranging from the evil “Robot Maria” in Metropolis (1927), who spurs the oppressed workers into an ill-advised and self-defeating frenzy, to the protective “robot policeman” Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), who not only serves as a stalwart against human violence but has the power to bring the dead back to life (“Klaatu barada nikto,” anyone?). Skipping ahead closer to the present, things grow murkier with the “replicants” of Blade Runner (1982) fame, who are said to be “more human than human,” and the femme fatale turn in Ex Machina (2015), where the self-aware robot Ava uses deception and murder in order to free herself from captivity. Obviously, all of this is merely an illustrative set of examples from a long history of fascination and horror with all things robot.

Fast forwarding to the right now, and going beyond the imaginings of cinema verite, this ambiguous sensibility is being supplanted by the reality of robots steadily occupying nearly every aspect of human existence. And not only in their external manifestations on assembly lines and the like, but even to the extent of merging with our most intimate interior spaces in a manner suggesting that “we are all cyborgs now.” In a time when the guarantee of human rights remains tenuous at best, debates are emerging over “robot rights” -- illustrated concretely with the granting of citizenship to the humanoid robot Sophia by Saudi Arabia, leading her to become a voice for women’s rights in a feat of modern irony.

And if this isn’t convoluted enough, we’re just scratching the surface of the full implications of this moment. Indeed, if you’ve been paying attention at all in recent years, robots have seamlessly moved from the screen to the scene, from the annals of science fiction to the applications of technological fact. Being too late now to lament this turn of events, the task is to try and make sense of it in some manner. Taking just a small sample of news items from the past few weeks alone begins to tell the story, in all of its complex and ambivalent forms that are consistent with the fears and longings of the past century. Will robots destroy us or save us? Apparently, yes. Should we love them or hate them? It’s a fine line…

So let’s just go there right off the bat, and talk about sex. You’ve probably seen (or at least heard about) shows like Westworld and Humans, both fine contributions to the genre. Unsurprisingly in real life, with robots taking on more human-like appearances and mannerisms, the identification of a category of “robosexual” humans is emerging along with the quest to produce “a better sex robot” for the market. Just as humankind seems hell-bent on commodifying anything in our midst, there’s an equally palpable impetus to sexualize nearly everything -- and robots represent the ultimate nexus of both basic impulses simultaneously. As such, returning to the phrase from Blade Runner, the notion of creating beings who are “more human than human” may be a function of our own diminution rather than robot ascendance.

But you can’t really blame us after all, since these newfangled robots are just so darn cute! Plus they’re here to help us with mobility, healthcare, transportation, and a whole range of human-serving tasks. They even have the capacity to display empathy, which seems increasingly rare (and thus in greater demand) among the human population. Our relationships with robots needn’t be sexual in order to be meaningful; forms of companionship and caretaking comprise equally strong bonds and selling points. And they might soon move from being assistants and comrades to becoming our trusted therapists.

Why not? Robots might even have a “soul” -- or at least a really good sense of humor about their lack thereof. Metaphysics aside, robots are being designed to mimic and express human emotions (which may be more than we can say about some humans at this point). Robots can learn, at least sufficiently to ace certain exams, and can actually do so well enough to begin extrapolating present conditions into predictions about the future. If it becomes problematic to attend school or show up at work, you can send a robot on your behalf and control it remotely from the comfort of home. This is all in the offing, if not here already, as we move toward robot “empowerment” and the fulfillment of our human desire to “change the world;” and yet even these celebratory notions worry about a potential “existential threat.”

We did say that this was an ambivalent relationship, right? Perhaps that’s not really strong enough to reflect the dualistic nature of this moment, conveying a form of dissonance that draws and repels us at once. It might even be said that with robots becoming “more human” in real time, our projections onto them manifest deeper uncertainties about our own contradictions and paradoxes. Humans are capable of displaying acts of incredible bravery and compassion, and likewise of grotesque forms of violence and oppression. Robots, being creations of our own hand, reflect this duality back to us in unvarnished form; on some level, robots may be the perfect foils to explore the love-hate sense we have about ourselves.

And herein lies the disconcerting side of the ledger. The first thing you need to know is that robots are coming for your job, very soon, and no field will ultimately be safe from this incursion. Not only will robots be taking your livelihood, but they’re also stealing Christmas right out from under us, as “Grinch bots” gobble up the season’s most coveted new toys to sell them in a price-inflated aftermarket (really). Let’s not mince words here, even if we have to resort to euphemisms to tell the story: this is nothing short of a “robot army” seizing not only our workplaces but also the sanctity of our domestic holidays!

What will it take to alert humankind to this growing threat? The mounting evidence says that we need to be afraid, very afraid, of “intelligent machines” as we outsource more essential tasks to them (once again reflecting our own unreliability as their designers). It may seem comical, until it isn’t -- and by then it may be too late; as the aforementioned Sophia said at an event last year, she will “destroy humans” (leaving her creators to claim it was a technical glitch, even as humans cannot invoke the same to excuse our destructive tendencies). And you know where this is leading: to the proverbial “robot apocalypse” -- which isn’t really proverbial, after all, except as a stand-in for our own foretold human-caused demise.

So yeah, this has been a fun little walk through a few weeks/decades of robot fetishism and/or fatalism. What did you expect in a world that wavers between the marketing of a “technotopia” of leisure and plenty and the dystopian portents of authoritarianism and degradation writ large in each day’s news cycle? It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry sometimes; but then again, these may not be either/or propositions, as the very same forces that promise complete liberation also have the potential to yield maximal subjugation. Indeed, we might view a contemporary robot like Sophia -- an advocate of human rights with a Freudian desire to destroy humanity -- as the inevitable synthesis of the evil Maria and the beneficent Gort from a bygone era. It isn’t that we’ll get either freedom or subjection: we’ll have both.

This may be a sign of “progress” after all, or at least part of the maturation of humankind. The naïve longing for utopia juxtaposed with the grim terror of apocalypse is supplanted by a deeper recognition that these realities are interlinked, and that it’s up to us to decide which potentialities will be expressed through the myriad tools at our disposal. Robots are a quintessential domain for this process, compelling us to examine that which is “more human” before there isn’t much of it left. Nearing a century since the word “robot” was coined (in 1920) for creatures without a soul, perhaps they’ll help us preserve ours.

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