Images of Our Robot Futures

Those familiar with the field of futures studies (see link below for more information on this academic field) will know of the field’s interest in “images of the future.”  These can be a wide range of things, from community vision statements to structured, data-informed forecasts. Images of the future are important because “the future” does not exist and cannot therefore be studied.  No data exists on it.  Humans, however, deal with this inherent uncertainty partly through generating “images” of what tomorrow will bring.  These images have a great influence on our perceptions of what is possible and what is preferable, and exert a great influence on the actions we take in the present.

In looking at the issue of automation and machine autonomy, the dominant images of the future are especially important as they often delineate where the investment and policy fault lines will/are forming.  In the case of our robot futures, a recent Guardian article presents what are currently the most dominant and competing images of the future for mainstream discourse:

  • Robots Take Our Jobs: this image of the future is fundamentally about human labor being displaced on a massive scale by all manner of machine automation. In one sense this general image of the future is benign: machines simply do our work for us while society seems to putter along. Yet, this image is often accompanied by questions about the roles and perceptions of self-worth of regular people who don’t have to work.  This image also generates questions about the distribution of wealth and access to the basic necessities in daily life.
  • Eclipse of Homo Sapiens: in some obvious ways the opposite of the Robots Take Our Jobs image, this image is a decidedly pessimistic one in which humanity is overshadowed by a digital species that presents humanity with some sort of existential threat. While some versions of this image are about imponderables like the evolutionary potential of self-improving AI, the most colorful and alarmist versions feature robots violently turning on their human creators in a Robopocalypse or Terminator fashion.
  • Our Digital Sidekicks: the lesser of the three dominant images (if only in the number of people that seem to subscribe to it), this could be considered a more positive variant of the Robots Take Our Jobs.  In this image the machines don’t take all of our jobs but do in fact become incredibly useful economic agents as they augment human labor. Many people are still economically disrupted in this image, but many are made more valuable through machine automation and many others are potentially unleashed by the new cheap labor and competencies offered by machines.

These dominant images suggest a few things about the current debates and likely policy responses to the uncertainty of the role of machines in human futures.  One of the most important things, I think, is the stark simplicity and contrast of these dominant images.  Both Robots Take Our Jobs and Eclipse of Homo Sapiens are obviously pessimistic views of the future, but more importantly they are fairly simple images.  Neither image (in their general and collective forms) admits to much nuance, and neither really explores the complex ways in which change actually unfolds.  Both appear to be fairly straightforward impressions of the future and both simply state, “the future will be bad.”

The third image, Our Digital Sidekicks, is more optimistic, anticipating neither society-wide unemployment from machines nor a dangerous self-conscious awakening of the machines. It is more nuanced in that it admits to some negatives (there will be economic disruption), but even this image does not fully explore the mid to long-term implications of machine augmentation of humans.

Based on this quick look at the images of the future that currently dominate this uncertainty I would say what is really needed is a great many more images.  The debate on the future of machines and humans together needs to be challenged by more nuanced, innovative, and artful images that are informed both by foresight as well as by aspiration.  In many respects our imagination about the future of machines and humans needs to be improved in order to avoid the trap of thinking that historical trends and present assumptions alone determine our future.

 


 

About futures studies

Robot panic peaked in 2015 – so where will AI go next?The Guardian.

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