SF Sunday: machines and freedom from slavery

From my Quotes File (which you can see serving up random quotes at the bottom of the sidebar):

The fact is, that civilization requires slaves. The Greeks were quite right there. Unless there are slaves to do the ugly, horrible, uninteresting work, culture, and contemplation become almost impossible. Human slavery is wrong, insecure, and demoralizing. On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends.
Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900)

I find the search for the perfect robot society a continuing feature of SF novels, and the examination of how this ties into artificial intelligence (and whether AI machines would necessarily have to also be self-aware, in which case would it be unethical to enslave them?), and whether indeed a society where all drudge-work was done by machines would be a bastion of culture and contemplation rather than merely a hedonistic and decadent play-pen, or whether the two can adequately co-exist? to be either totally fascinating or infuriating facile, there’s rarely a middle ground.

Of course, we’re a long way from every house, office and factory having janitor/maid/gardener bots just yet (and where’s my flying car?).

An early idea in robotics was that it would be simple to program a robot to do daily household tasks. The discovery that those daily household tasks actually require much more perception, knowledge and discrimination in regards to what exactly needs to be done and when with how much force applied was made decades ago, although it hasn’t generally made it into the popular conception of what housework requires in a cognitive sense. AI has not yet been able to adequately reproduce a mechanical device that acts with sufficient intelligence to make a house clean and comfortable rather than a wreck full of broken items and with needed things discarded along with the dirt and dust.

So what would the production of robots with sufficient AI that they can look at a dustpan and pick out the bits of construction toys and the loose change actually mean for those who do housework and commercial janitorial work? How would that single change restructure our culture in those societies that could afford to purchase and utilise such robots?

What books have you read that explore any of these issues? And which did it well?



Categories: ethics & philosophy, technology, work and family

Tags: , ,

3 replies

  1. Time is a bit like money.
    There has long been this idea that as soon as we develop the technology, we will live time rich lives. As you point out, this is supposed to either result in a hedonistic existence or a society built around culture and contemplation.
    We’ve already developed the machines to give us the time. From white out saving us from re-typing documents on the type writer, to the computer, the ever greater time saving pieces of computing software.
    In the home we have the dishwasher, the microwave, the precooked meal. Occasionally you even see an “infomercial” for a small robot that will automatically work it’s way around your home and do the vacuuming.
    The answer to your question lies in what we have already done with the devices that were supposed to make us time rich.
    We have spent the time.
    In the work places we have less time. Our employers expect that with this “new technology” we should be able to do even more. In the home, the manufacturers of time saving devices (or quick sanitising chemicals, automatic toothbrushes or whatever) have convinced us that there are even more tasks that need doing, and even more time saving devices or chemicals that need purchasing.
    What will we do when the machines give us more time, or more money? We will spend the time and the money, and find ourselves with less of both.

  2. Charles Stross addresses these issues ridiculously well in Saturn’s Children (see my blog post on the topic here), on the issue of humanity’s tendency to overclock itself in ability. The big issue is that to maintain a certain lifestyle, one needs workers that are both obedient and yet have the ability to think critically.
    Stross indicates the truly heartbreaking nature of this in SC, where humans are extinct, but the androids left behind are not quite free, in terms of following programming and the inability to gain abilities they never had (most are low on empathy, because it wasn’t necessary for their models’ tasks). I highly recommend it.

  3. Kieran:

    What will we do when the machines give us more time, or more money? We will spend the time and the money, and find ourselves with less of both.

    A bleak view, but not one without justification based on the last few decades.
    Bene:

    The big issue is that to maintain a certain lifestyle, one needs workers that are both obedient and yet have the ability to think critically.

    Makes one wonder how far the current demands to wring the last drop of sweat from workers using new technology can continue to be obeyed. A large amount of the drive for consumerist extravagance I think is an attempt to create a scarcity market in things that people must be persuaded that they actually need. What happens when people’s houses are groaning with consumerist clutter and they start to rebel?
    The Stross sounds very interesting. Thanks.

%d bloggers like this: