2000s >> 2005 >> no-1213-september-2005


Socialist Robots...

In Rossum’s Universal Robots (1921), the best workers are the cheapest ones with the fewest needs, who know only how to work, have no humanity, remember everything but think of nothing new. In fact, they are Robots, humanoids genetically engineered for a life of drudgery, as the Czech word ‘robota’ indicates. Although the concept of artificial humans goes back much further than Capak’s play, it is since his work that ideas of mechanical men and women created to serve humanity have really taken off, and increasingly are no longer restricted to film, TV and literature.

Modern robots, however, have little in common with Capak’s. Bolted to the floor, they are computer-controlled mechanical arms capable of such tasks as painting, wedling, riveting, loading and stacking, and are seen in increasing numbers throughout the manufacturing industry. Whether they should be classed as robots is debatable, for they fail utterly to resemble what we commonly understand to be a robot; that is, a mechanical human.

Such robots have been in development for some time, particularly in Japan. ASIMO, for example, is Honda’s 4-foot tall humanoid robot which can walk, run, climb stairs and respond to fifty different Japanese phrases. Sony’s QRIO can connect wirelessly to the internet and get up should it fall. And Toyota’s ‘Partner’ robot can inflate its mechanical lungs, purse its artificial lips and play the trumpet (The Economist Technology Quarter, March 12th 2005). But that’s about all they can do, and as yet are a very long way from the C3POs, Datas, and Terminators of film and TV.

As we move toward socialism, and as technology advances, it is not unlikely that a sentient, humanoid robot capable of speech, thought, mobility, and invested with something of a personality (to ease communication with it and reinforce its ‘humanoid’ characteristics), will be created, should present trends continue. However, they could present something of a problem for socialism, for in a society where all people are considered equal, what relationship will we have with artificial people? Will organic humans be more equal than inorganic ones?

Naturally, science-fiction has much to say on this subject. Isaac Asimov’s robots, featured in many of his short stories and novels, are programmed to obediently serve humanity, even answering ‘master’ to humans, who often address them as ‘boy’. This slave class stands in complete contrast to the ruling class which robots have evolved to become in Philip K Dick’s dystopian futures, and are so lifelike that they cannot be distinguished from human beings. Indeed, there are certain strands of evolutionary theory which suggest that inorganic life will achieve superiority over organic life so that the machine – if machine is the right word – may indeed become the dominant life form.

Although Marx, in The Poverty of Philosophy, noted that machinery ‘is intended to cheapen commodities’ and ‘is a means for producing surplus value’, the exploratory dynamic of science is not always suppressed by the confines and limitations of capitalism and humanoid robots may continue to be developed into socialism, even though they are hugely expensive and as yet have no practical applications. However, it’s unlikely that socialists would want a servant, machine or otherwise, to see to their needs, for it would clearly necessitate a master and servant relationship. And if robots were programmed with a consciousness, as well as the capacity to display emotive behaviour, we can assume it would be a socialist consciousness and would doubtless object to its servitude. If sentient humanoid robots are going to work at all, it must be alongside us and not for us. On the other hand, we may altogether abandon as unethical the project of replicating human life in machine form and concentrate solely on the non-humanoid form of robot.

It seems unlikely, though, that such machines could ever perform tasks with the dexterity, creativity and joy of human beings, and it may be counter-productive to invest the huge amounts of time and resources necessary to create phenomenally complex machines if they can only replicate the mundane work of Capak’s originals. For a socialist society, humanoid robots may be breathtaking examples of human ingenuity, but little more. …

and Robochefs
Life hectic? Too much stress? Can’t be bothered to cook? Just go to your domestic organic recycler, tap in the code for ‘chicken and chips’, and the appropriate molecules are extracted from your underground organic waste vault (ugh) and reassembled into piping hot rosemary-flavoured poule et frites (yummy). What’s even better, as this ‘chicken’ never lived to suffer in the first place, vegetarians might like it too. Farfetched? Well, just a bit. This kind of molecular assembly, though theoretically possible, is several horizons beyond the current nanotechnology horizon, and at present only exists as the fabulous ‘food replicator’ seen on the Starship Enterprise.

With the Bush administration’s determination to get humans back into space and on their way to Mars via the International Space Station, one offshoot technology is exploring ways to make the food available to astronauts more interesting and varied (New Scientist, August 20). Since food ingredients in space have to have a long shelf-life without refrigeration, the challenge is to produce variety out of a limited repertoire. The new idea is to devise a mathematical language or ‘grammar’ to describe different foods, and then program a virtual food machine to synthesise or simulate these foods out of raw ingredients. While the feasibility of making such a machine compact enough for space flight is doubtful, with no restriction on size or number of ingredients the land-based potential is enormous. The machine could be programmed to develop its own recipes, perhaps by an evolutionary process, so that unthinkably interesting new foods could be born.

Pathfinders may sometimes give the impression that socialism will always take advantage of any labour-saving technology that capitalism happens to come up with, but in this particular case it may well do the opposite. While the drive to automate tedious, arduous or dangerous work is clearly worthwhile, what is more questionable is whether we would ever want to automate enjoyable social practices. Even if a machine could come up with a recipe we never thought of, would it be worth it? In capitalism, where cut-throat competition makes the buck more important than the buzz, speed, innovation and output are what matter. Capitalism is always ruining the fun in everything, so that people begin to perceive almost any creative activity as dreary work to be avoided, or given to machines. In socialism, with its conflation of work and play at the centre of the social ethic, there will be some things people will always prefer to do themselves, and for each other, without the robots taking over. Sex is definitely one. Maybe cooking is another.

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