In a somewhat breathless report in the Financial Times on February 14th, Moshe Vardi, computer science professor at Rice University in Texas, is quoted as saying that “We are approaching the time when machines will be able to outperform humans at almost any task. Society needs to confront this question before it is upon us: if machines are capable of doing almost any work humans can do, what will humans do?"
may be a dash of panic emerging about the emergence of robotics and AI - after all, scientists and engineers have form when it comes to doing the 'chicken licken'
thing as they move into the public sphere. It is as if these professions have a deep psychological problem in understanding social and system complexity,
adaptability and unpredictability. We have certainly seen this with
climate change much as we once saw it with scientific panic about racial
Nevertheless, AI and robotics are set to make an
impact similar to that of the introduction of machinery in the early
agricultural phase of the industrial revolution. This pushed masses of
peasants out of traditional jobs into the cities as cheap labour. This lead to the next round of applications of machinery to industrial
processes as urban labour started to become more expensive. Administrative, clerical and skilled labour are now expensive enough to drive the next set of applications of machine intelligence.
Robotics probably will eliminate many skilled
manufacturing jobs. AI will certainly eliminate many clerical and even professional
jobs. Robotics plus AI will eliminate many unskilled jobs. On past form,
new jobs of a different nature to meet new needs eventually get created. Human existence and experience, after a painful disruption, then improves
significantly yet the disruption could be politically and socially dangerous.
In the earlier cycles, there was no democracy so
we had riots, then revolutions and then the formation of new political
parties constructing the democracy and other radical forms of governance that allowed society to engage in the internal Darwinian struggle that led to the triumph of a rather
weak form of welfarist liberal democracy. This may have frustrated Nietzsche who saw the 'weak' collectivising to become strong and it is true that this collectivisation could de-humanise as much as the machines did but the outcomes were, on balance, more beneficial than not in terms of creating the conditions for at least the possibility of personal empowerment and individuation.
The next cycle looks
as if it will be expressed through populist upsurges. We are now
into new territory, so we may as well enjoy the ride ... but the one thing we can be sure
of is that this new system like the old will be managed by
self-reinforcing elites periodically replaced by more suitable
This is the nature of power - it cannot
be held by everyone at the same time although the powerful are just as
controlled by those over whom they exercise formal power, in subtle and
devious ways, as they control those who have no formal power. Foucault was good on the complexity of all this, If so, the
first 'new' elite will only be the cleverer elements of the old elite seeking to manage the new
populism. It is when that fails that the fun and games begin ...
But before we get over-excited here is an example of hype that needs
treating with care, The FT again: "Prof Vardi said it would be hard to think of any
jobs that would not be vulnerable to robotics and AI — even sex workers.
“Are you going to bet against sex robots?” he asked. “I’m not.”" As
usual in our rather sexually anxious culture, the Professor uses sexuality to
heighten the air of tension. We really do need to grow up about sex but that is not why I raise it.
If you think about Vardi's comment, it begs the question of what sort of sex
worker - we are speaking of the oldest profession, one that deserves being taken
seriously and respected in our otherwise sex-negative society. There is
the aspect of 'relief' and of 'fetish' whose demands might be relieved by autonomous
robots with no personality (the problem of robots with personality and
consciousness is one for science fiction and very far into the future
but still one eventually to be taken seriously).
But there is the
very separate aspect of human need for contact with other humans, as opposed to the autistic but perfectly reasonable human need to have no contact with other human beings, where the
elimination of the exhaustion of work and our daily scrabbling for 'time-resource'
(an overhang from the industrial era) might actually create a positive
need for a huge range of erotic services for all sorts for very different
people in safe and psychologically healthy ways.
female interest in the performance art of burlesque or the turning of
pole-dancing into a form of athletic prowess are just the beginning of
this vast range of human-to-human interactions which will involve
'trade' and extend to all other forms of experience - ambience,
performance, fashion, play, aesthetics, humour, dance and movement,
fragrance, seduction, ritualised safe violence (which is what much sport
is at heart), magical belief and the invention of cults,
psychotherapies and philosophies, new ways of constructing family and
community, new politics (against the reactionary politics of Iron Age
religiosity and industrial age bureaucracy), safe altered states and new
forms of economic organisation.
All that will then be needed is a
limited framework for protecting the person (and the animal and
eventually the conscious robot) from unwarranted unequal exploitation
and physical and (within reason because all conscious creatures create
themselves out of risk and struggle) mental harm. The State should,
ideally, as Marx expected, 'wither away' except that there will long be a
need for something to construct and set the limits for the massive
infrastructural investments that will help create that limited
Professor Vardi chooses sex workers
as a trope because our culture is still hung up on sexuality. A
socially conservative puritanism is re-emerging in this context as the last reactionaries
hope to use the coming crisis to reintroduce their worn out values -
hence the explosion of Islamism, Papal energy, Super-Federalism,
Neo-Cold War idiocies, counter-terrorism strategies, surveillance,
prohibitionisms and engineered anxieties and panics.
of sexuality as the primary point of excitement itself suggests the problem - a
deep cultural issue with the normality of sexual response and the ancient
fear of it in a context of limited resources, the need by elites to control humans as property (which still carries on in those states that conscript their young) and the danger to order of emotions in closed
The new technology opens up spaces, no longer permits humans to be
treated as property (which is very scary to people who find security in
being slaves) and increases resources - suddenly, there is no excuse at
the educated and intelligent end of society for savage authoritarian
mores other than the existence of the disturbed personality type of the authoritarian.
We have often noted that the struggle between freedom and authority or power, often generational, is far more central to the human condition even than class or gender or ethnic conflict. The problem then becomes one of the fear of ancient ways dissolving and
releasing the mob into chaos (which is the current terror that permits
social conservatism to be tolerated).
The AI/robotics revolution may be
scary for the disruption in employment and community (but what positive
change in society is not) but it is also scary for another reason - it
will terrify Authority faced with the loss of their elite control
over the distribution of resources, over cultural space and over the
disposition of labour value.
The most frightened will be the 'educated'
(education not being the same as usefulness or intelligence) who have
believed that they rule by divine right because they have ruled, at
least culturally, for over half a millennium in some form or another,
whether liberal-bureaucratic, pseudo-socialist, progressive, corporatist
So, for the rest of us who embrace the future while
thinking it reasonable for new elites to arise who will mitigate bad
effects on humans and who will prepare for the day when the descendants of the
AI/robots will be our conscious equals (and one hopes our friends), it
is a case of watchfulness against the claw-back of power by the losing
classes, the exploitation of fear and anxiety to impose restrictions on
our freedom and the crass over-claims of excitable scientists and