...or why machines and markets won't save us
Something more than a little disturbing is happening at your local Wal-Mart, and it's not a two for one special on extreme macaroni pizza Pringles potato chips. The latest forms of high tech gadget culture spilling from the shelves are signaling the transition of society into something unprecedented, even frightening. Drone warfare has become a hot political topic, and with Americans tackling the implications of these nation destabilizing technologies now flying here at home, products which embody elements of this new age of wireless war fighting are finding their way into the big box marketplace. Is it possible that predictions from a 2005 sci-fi book entitled The Artilect War, authored by retired professor of mathematical physics and artificial intelligence Hugo De Garis, are emerging under "Roll Back" conditions beneath rows of fluorescent lighting?
What Professor de Garis envisions is a time when the field of artificial intelligence reaches a level of sophistication that could produce a machine vastly exceeding human consciousness. He dubbed this theoretical machine the artilect, short for artificial intellect. The prospect of such a radical creation in the hands of a military superpower, de Garis believes, will escalate into a war of advanced, twenty-first century weapons, killing much of the world's population. While a weaponized thinking machine currently remains out of reach, we are witnessing the foundations of what might broadly be called, in de Garis's language, a kind of artilect war constellating across the cultural infocosm.
One of many points along this dehumanizing constellation is Wal-Mart, renowned for low prices yet maligned for an anti-union stance and its widespread elimination of small businesses. The mega corporation is also known for its sale of mass produced goods originating from places with lax worker protections: places like China, where de Garis and his collegue Ben Goertzel have taught, and where they have surmised that the coming artilect will arise, given the nation's large population, rapid industrialization, and significant, centralized government investment into the development of AI. But in the aisles of the American marketplace, China is making its mark alongside other nations of exploited labor pools, delivering goods Westerners can afford in uncertain times.
Amidst the rows of toys and electronics, one finds numerous products that are acclimating kids to the changing world. Beyond the Darth Vader kites and LEGO SWAT team sets, there are various smartphone enabled toys, guaranteed to satisfy a nation addicted to pixels. Locked into a plastic AppBlaster gun, a smart phone suddenly generates an "augmented reality," where computerized enemies are layered on screen over the real world. This product presages the much anticipated Google Glass, slated for a 2014 release, which will superimpose a digital reality over daily life onto a screen worn like glasses. Directions, store reviews, and computer apps will float within view, facilitating unending cyberspace connectivity.
Corporations like Emotiv have in recent years pioneered headsets which monitor a wearer's brainwaves and allow the user to control computer applications by thought, bringing new potentials to gaming, communication, and market research. While these products have not yet hit the shelves of big box stores, there are other signs of a technological revolution near at hand.
The Helo TC Assault, also found at Wal-Mart, is a smartphone piloted helicopter which can fire plastic missiles with a touch of the screen. The toy drone is a simple version of more expensive consumer grade UAVs, which often include video cameras and come in quad rotor variations. Meanwhile, the ubiquitous video game, Call of Duty Modern Warfare Three, involves a Predator drone "kill streak" bonus that wreaks havoc on virtual humans below. It shouldn't be surprising, then, that modified Play Station controllers, familiar to young soldiers, are used by the military to control actual aerial war machines and kill real people. And while teens and young adult males are being targeted with military industrial gaming, if you head over to the young children's department, you'll find that companies like Fisher-Price and VTech are marketing products that simulate laptops and smartphones for children as young as six months old. PlaySkool even has an Elmo "mp3 player."
What de Garis saw in his book was the emergence of a machine so frighteningly advanced that so-called Terrans, desiring a world without an artilect, come into violent conflict with Cosmists, who yearn for the stars. Yet even now we are witnessing an amalgam of disruptive high technologies and continuous warfare. Additionally, while pop culture sells us unmanned aerial toys, tech gadgets for tots, and electronic living room war simulations, the content of these consumer products is being reinforced by their very methods of delivery. The widespread supplanting of human beings and parallel forces of dehumanization are taking root across the retail chains. Orders placed by large companies are handled automatically by inventory tracking computers rather than people. The hallmarks of today's large scale customer service sector includes phone trees, canned music, outsourced telephone operators, and employees unfamiliar with their robot and sweatshop built products. The machine driven reality is already operating outside the grasp of most of us, as we attempt to navigate on faith an unstable world of writhing market forces, gas price fluctuations, and technologies whose inner workings are beyond everyday comprehension.
Workers struggling to survive are displaced not only by outsourced low wage labor and industrial robots, but automated checkout lines and next generation automatons. In Harbin China, a restaurant opened in 2012 which is overseen by humans but logistically run by robots, including a greeter, wait staff, and automatic chefs. South Korea is deploying robotic prison guards, which "detect" changes in prisoner emotional states and report wirelessly to human guards. The Metro Group in Germany has opened the Future Store, which allows customers to utilize a Mobile Shopping Assistant phone app to scan their own merchandise and eventually wirelessly purchase the items, eliminating the need for cashiers altogether.
Meanwhile, companies like Staples, The Gap, Office Depot, Zappos, and Diapers.com run Kiva's robotic warehouse system, which organizes inventory, and delivers products to human pickers for shipping fulfillment. Efficiency under such a system has exploded, but real people are losing their jobs as a result. And now in a move that seems bizarre even within the walls of our growing techno asylum, Amazon is even experimenting with drone delivery systems that will autonomously drop goods at your doorstep.
Created under his new company, Rethink Robotics, Baxter displays facial expressions that reflect its operating state. Baxter's appearance ranges from "focused" on the task at hand to "dejected" when things aren't going well. Unlike expensive, single purpose industrial robots seen at car manufacturing plants, the nimble machine is easily programmable to handle multiple production line tasks for only about $20,000 a unit. Baxter clearly has the potential to displace millions of workers, and Brooks admits as much.
While massive numbers of manufacturing jobs have been lost to low paying factories offshore, pushing laborers increasingly into the service sector, the cold, modern day profit machine is now threatening even these jobs. One example is the so-called Momentum Machine, an up and coming device, which according to the company, can produce 360 high quality hamburgers an hour. With such labor eliminating innovation, it can pay for itself within a year. Additionally, both the US military and Google (which in 2013 purchased lead military robotics contractor Boston Dynamics) have been working on the production of driverless vehicles. Touted as vast improvements to human safety, both on and off the battlefield, such creations also foretell the elimination of truck and delivery drivers, mail carriers, trash collectors, and agricultural vehicle operators, to name a few.
The kind of largely unnoticed automation that is arriving on an increasingly dehumanized scene spurred Silicon Valley software developer Martin Ford to pen the book The Lights in the Tunnel, which addresses a technologically displaced humanity. His book suggests that machines are not only poised to replace physical labor, but better compensated knowledge based jobs as well, like data analysts, law researchers, or doctors. Evidenced by the 2011 Jeopordy! season, in which IBM's supercomputer Watson trounced Jeopordy! prodigies Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in a series of matches, technology will likely one day possess such capabilities. These trends have not gone unnoticed in academic circles. In 2013, a study released from Oxford concluded that 47% of US jobs are threatened by automation.
The progress of computers has largely followed a trend known as Moore's Law, which observes that the number of semi-conductors on an integrated circuit doubles roughly every year and half to two years, meaning that speed and storage capacity has been increasing at an exponential rate. Though some are now seeing a slowdown in the trend, the undeniable improvements on computer technology along a fairly regular path has led people like Hugo de Garis, well known futurist and award winning inventor Ray Kurzweil, and others to speculate that computers will possess human like intelligence some time mid twenty-first century. The potential dislocation of much of humanity from gainful employment and the resulting economic disparity which worries Martin Ford, however, is already underway. Even more troubling, it is a trend that is emerging alongside the erosion of Constitutional protections, mounting social tensions, pressures on global agriculture from climate change, and intensified electronic surveillance.
Like many underlying developments in the world today, technological displacement hides in plain sight. It is further testament to the power of technology that media conglomerates pedaling simplistic, incomplete, and fictional narratives are simultaneously creating this new reality as well as our distorted understanding of it. While the fields of robotics and AI bring with them promises of advanced prosthetics and modern conveniences, the pace of life is speeding up, and with it, the pace of human and environmental exploitation. Since the 2008 housing bubble collapse, no prosecutions of Wall Street executives for their fraudulent behavior has occurred. In 2009, head of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, Antonio Costa, indicated to the Guardian newspaper that laundered drug money was the only liquid capital available to keep some banks afloat. During this period and up until the present, at least fifty percent of stock trades are now made at speeds beyond human comprehension by supercomputers maximizing profits on marginal changes in stock prices, in a process known as algorithmic trading. While a corrupted system of electronic financial speculation toys with food commodity prices and creates disruptions across the globe, emerging robotic warfare disconnects us further from the battlefield and from any sense of personal responsibility. A stated aim of DARPA and the DOD's Project Alpha, reinforced by the Pentagon’s Directive 3000.09, indicates that lethal robots able to autonomously select and eliminate human targets are in fact being developed. While humanity’s expendability in the face of a violent technocracy is becoming evident, advanced military machines are being deployed by entrenched interests to maintain control over coveted resources on an increasingly destabilized planet.
There exists a powerful parallel between the replacement of human workers by machines even as the biosphere and human life are being threatened by destructive technologies. Dehumanization, both literally and figuratively, are the name of the game, in the elite's planet ravaging quest for increasing power and profit. While in the twentieth century, so called advanced societies witnessed gains in average lifespan, now we are confronted with deeper threats to the core of existence. Our vulnerability is multifaceted: the environmental threats we bring upon ourselves with disruptive technologies, the increasingly dehumanized state of unending war cropping up in a domestic militarized police, and as author Chris Hedges points out, the utter expendability of average people in the eyes of the elite, who are now concentrating wealth with job eliminating technologies. This is a world where the richest 85 people have as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion. Mother Jones reported that in America, the top 10% controls 2/3 of US net worth. The backlash of such disparities and destabilization will be managed through surveillance algorithms, spy drones, and metadata analysis.
Professor Hugo de Garis believes that an artilect war is the most probable outcome in the coming years of advanced AI research. Whether his particular vision is correct or not, the fact that he spent most of his career in university labs working to build such an artilect demonstrates perfectly the sociopatholgical nature of the society we inhabit. He is no mad genius, but rather appears to me to be a man captured by a dark and narcissistic techno fanaticism, that rather than suggestive of breakthrough imagination, is more wed to an extension of an ongoing narrative. The notion of some future god like artilect as a singular creature perfected through technological advance, is clearly the product of a Western male hierarchy driven by science and so-called rationality towards the obliteration of mother earth.
What is actually unfolding certainly emerges from this narrative, but it appears far more integrated into a truly transhuman reality. By transhuman, I don't simply mean the merger of man and machine, but additionally, a phenomenon that goes beyond the individual human to take on a larger gestalt. It is not an individual Terminator stalking us down the future's alleyways, but rather the stem cells of a holistic, technological beingness developing and taking root, finding rudimentary consciousness in Google and IBM algorithms, in socially conditioned redundancies, in the objectification of robotically discarded human beings, in the all seeing and interconnected electronic eyes that peer into our lives, in financially dictated foreclosures during housing overabundance, in the Wal-Martification of the landscape, in the blast patterns of drone fired missiles, in the machine mediated entertainment that feeds our consciousness, in the mass produced food and environmental chemicals that become our bodies, and in the ongoing stream of Wall Street stock tickers and interest rate directives that shuffle us into our daily routines and subroutines. It is a ruthless machine logic, psychopathically resonant in its lack of empathy, and ready to dispense with life as it grinds forward on its own accelerating logic. To confront the "planned obsolescence" of humanity, then, is to confront an already emerging artilect war penetrating into the tissues of life like the prick of a biotech scientist's gene gun which forever alters the nature of whatever it infects.