Sunday, 21 February 2016

Robotics, AI, Sexuality & Power - A Brave New World

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?"

There 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 degradation!

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 self-reinforcing elites.

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.

Perhaps the 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 framework's potentialities.

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.

The choice 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 spaces.

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 or fascist.

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 engineers. Avanti!