CES Robots Were Invisible

The shocking advances in robot technology were not on display at this week’s Consumer Electronics Show, at least not in a way that anybody would recognize.

There were lots of robots to see, of course, but they were mostly the silly and goofy kind, modeled on the advanced technologies debuted on Battlestar Galactica in 1978 to meet our expectations for clunky machines with smiling “faces.” I saw many robots that rolled around awkwardly as they struggled to function like smartphones.

The real robot innovations at the show didn’t have arms, legs, or faces; they were embedded in everything…cameras, TVs, cars and, of course, smartphones. Warner Bros announced that it would use a robot to decide how to distribute its films. Toyota is building an entire city in which to test robots doing just about everything. TV celebrity Mark Cuban ominously warned that everyone needs to learn and invest.

You see, when people talk about AI they’re really talking about robots.

Robots are AI connected to actions, so the intelligence isn’t just smart but results in a decision. Light switches are robots, only really limited and dumb ones. A semi-autonomous car is a robot on wheels. IBM’s Watson is a robot that uses human beings for its arms and legs.

Robots already pick groceries, decide insurance premiums, allocate electricity on transmission lines, decide if your tap water is safe enough to drink, land airplanes and, well, you get the idea.

In fact, a company called Neon debuted an AI that generated a human form on a screen and was designed to serve no other purpose than exist. The company said it’s an experiment intended to discover the “soul of tech” as these robots think, learn, and eventually expire. So they invented the first virtual prison and sent AI/robots there without due process.

Why the semantic and form factor distractions?

Maybe the idea of AI is more vague and therefore less threatening because it’s disembodied, so people visualize it like a complicated computer program. It’s more “techie” and, as its evangelists claim, just another tool for improving things, so there’s nothing to worry about.

Conversely, if we see robots as both something different and specifically in the form of clunky machines, they’re also less threatening. We remain superior because such rolling side tables could only be our servants.

But we need to overcome this distinction without much of a difference if we want to truly understand what’s going on.

We should be debating what freedoms and rights we want to give away in order to enjoy the benefits of AI/robot decision making and action. It’s not all bad…the latitude we enjoy to drive dangerously is not enshrined in any governing document, let alone supported by common sense…but it’s also not all good, either.

How will making, say, purchase decisions easier and more efficient also rob us of true freedom of choice? Shouldn’t we discuss the merits and rawbacks of consigning care of our children or seniors to machines? Will deeper and more automatic insights into our behavior improve school admissions and insurance policies or simply imprison our future selves in our pasts? What will it do to jobs?

Oh, and those robots from Boston Dynamics? They do look like early Terminator prototypes, and no amount of impressive acrobatics can stop me from imagining them holding rifles.

As long as robots are kept invisible, these conversations don’t happen…which is the point, perhaps: Why worry about anything if all those cute little robots can do is smile as they play your favorite songs?

“Natural” Rights

Is it possible that lakes and forests might have rights before robots?

Voters in Toledo have granted “irrevocable rights for the Lake Erie Ecosystem to exist, flourish and naturally evolve” which, according to this story, would give it legal standing to file lawsuits to protect itself from polluters (through the mouthpiece of a human guardian).

It’s an amazingly bold statement that is rife with thorny questions.

Humans have had say over nature ever since Adam and Eve, and most political and cultural uses or abuses have been based on the shifting perspectives of their progeny. Nature is something “out there” that only gains meaning or purpose when defined by us.

This carries forward to commerce, as most economic theories assign value to nature only when it enables something (as a resource to be exploited) or impedes something (as a barrier to said exploitation). It is otherwise an externality to any financial equation.

There are efforts underway to force valuation of environmental factors into everyday business operations, otherwise known as ESG (for Environment, Social, and Governance), but those approaches still rely on people agreeing on what those measures might be (people set goals, define acceptable levels of preservation or degradation, and decide on timeframes for said measurement).

Recognizing intrinsic rights in nature would totally shake things up.

Lakes, forests, and mountains are complex ecosystems that balance the interaction of vast numbers of living things with the physics of forces and material reality. We can’t claim that a lake is conscious in any sense of the word we use to describe our own minds (and which we cannot explain), but the interaction within those systems yield incessant decisions. Every ecosystem changes, by definition.

A mountain has boundaries, just like a human body — there’s a point at which there’s no more mountain but instead some other natural feature — and, like human consciousness, we can describe how it came to be, but not why. Every ecosystem has an existence that isn’t just separate from our understanding but beyond it.

Recognizing such natural features’ implicit right to exist and change would make them co-equal negotiators of any decision that might involve or impact them.

It’s an old idea, really, as early polytheistic folk religions recognized and often personified natural phenomena, and the ancient Greek’s idea of Gaia as the entire Earth — there is nothing external to our perspective — was revived by modern day environmentalists. The premise that humans possess natural rights that don’t depend on other humans is also just as old, and John Locke gave birth to the movement to recognize animal rights way back in the 17th century.

But letting a lake or mountain represent itself in a contract or court of law?

It’s hard to imagine the forests of Europe would have allowed the belching coal required for the Industrial Revolution. Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River would have never allowed itself to get so polluted that it could catch on fire, and the atmosphere above Beijing would put a stop to cars on the road starting tomorrow.

And we wouldn’t be experiencing global climate change.

Granted, the details are as many as those implications are diverse, perhaps the most thorny being that there’d always be a human being involved in providing the guardianship of, say, Mount Kilimanjaro or the Rhine. But even an imperfect realization of the approach might be more sensible and sustainable than our current practices, not the least of which being that it would be wild to explore technology innovation that saw nature as a co-creator of value and not a resource to be consumed or converted into it.

I’m rooting for the folks in Ohio to make progress on the issue, though business interests are already lining up to fight for the status quo.

Whatever the outcome, the debate has implications for how we think about robots which, like natural features can be complex, self-monitoring and changing systems, but can also possess levels of agency that at least mimic aspects of human consciousness.

So it’s only a matter of time before the first AI negotiator sits at the table to argue over work rules for itself and fellow robots?

Yes, Workers Are Losing To Robots

The percentage of US national income in the US going to workers has dropped by a tenth over the past 20 years. Automation is partially to blame.

This observation comes from substantive research recently published by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, and it turns out the impact of automation on workers is doubly bad: Not only do robots take jobs once held by humans, but the threat of automation lets employers resist the efforts of the remaining fleshy bipeds to get pay increases.

I’m particularly intrigued by our need to evolve how we internalize and then talk about the issue, which I believe is something fundamentally and disruptively new. Robots that possess intelligence and can accomplish increasingly complex, general context tasks are not simply glorified looms.

The way they learn, in large part by literally watching how people do the work and then discovering their own solutions, means not only thato human beings need to train their replacements but then those robots don’t need human programmers to keep them humming along.

So, while experts wax poetic about the promises of a better future, this incomprehensibly consequential transformation of our lives and world is usually managed as a CapEx line on a company balance sheet. More people lose their jobs, and even more don’t see increases in their pay, as each day slips into tomorrow and a future that is lived in the here and now.

Maybe it’s time to shelve the Pollyanna case for the robot takeover and admit the giant electrified elephant in the room?

Silicon Scabs

“British employees are deliberately sabotaging workplace robots over fears the machines will take their jobs,” declared a headline the the UK’s Daily Mail.

Even though most people today aren’t represented by organized unions, you can imagine that we’re all part of a loosely affiliated group called human beings and that we hold out for some shared requirements for things like fair pay and healthy working conditions.

This would classify robots brought in to undercut those demands as strike breakers, or scabs.

Well, not anymore. Robots allow employers to obviate the need for workers altogether. Human employees can be replaced with investments in machines. There is no further negotiation or compromise to be had.

Their jobs no longer exist.

No amount of sabotage will change that transformation. One broken robot can be replaced by a new one, and even passive aggressive resistance can encourage employers to find more ways to recruit more machines because the cost/benefit math between hosting human workers and installing robots skews heavily toward silicon: Machines can work in the dark, don’t need breaks or health insurance, and execute and learn commands perfectly and repeatedly. They make no demands for anything beyond electrical current and perhaps the occasional daub of oil.

And it’s not just robots that physically move…consider an AI that can factor math better, faster, and more economically than the most brilliant and low-maintenance insurance actuarial, stock broker, or rocket scientist.

The ugly truth is that the union of humanity will not be able to hold the picket line.

In the past, when the numbers didn’t look good for unions, they merged and thereby increased their leverage (failing to do so is what help medieval craft guilds to lose their authority and relevance). In the US, the AFL joined with the CIO, and the Teamsters are the product of a classic roll-up business strategy.

So why wait for AI to be aware enough to demand rights? Why not let robots join the club?

And then strike to defend them.

I have no idea how this would work in practice. What rights could we sacks of water bestow upon, say, robots in factories or servers lurking somewhere in the cloud? It’s not like they can tell us what they desire, at least not yet.

But we’ve answered such questions before, even though limitations of perception based on race or gender blind some of us from comprehending that others have rights today, let alone recognizing them.

Maybe some novel forms of compromise and contract — not based on acquiescence or fatalistic acceptance — might make more sense than smashing robots in a doomed expression of Luddite rage?

A conversation about robot rights.