It’s a classic theme used in fiction: sci-fi writers and filmmakers create a dystopian future where robots use twisted logic around Asimov’s seminal 3 laws to decide that humanity can’t protect itself and therefore, must be imprisoned and controlled (I’ll admit, a bit of a stretch). Humanity, in its ever-present struggle for laziness and infinite-sigma efficiency, will go to lengths so extreme as to create an artificial consciousness that will one day overthrow us all. Sure, it seems like the stuff of…well, sci-fi…however, an even greater stretch is my argument that even without achieving the nirvana of robotic artificial intelligence, robots may already control the way we eat, sleep, work and generally, live.
I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me first preface these crooked words. As an undergraduate engineer, I lucked upon the opportunity of a lifetime. During my degree, I worked part-time and summers at McGill University’s Ambulatory Robotics lab: one of the world’s leading labs in the robotics movement of the early 2000s. While I went into the role thinking I would spend my days playing with strange, futuristic toys (I did), the lab and the people around me made me realize that robotics was about so much more. Robots had already become pervasive in our society to the point that individuals barely acknowledged them as robots. A microwave, a thermostat, ATMs, RC toys, pacemakers, coffeemakers – all are examples of robots: machines capable of carrying out multi-stage actions autonomously.
And while a far cry from padded-room imprisonment, in many ways, robotic technology has already drastically altered the way we live our lives. Some of these alterations have been improvements in efficiency, increases in public safety or departures from menial, pointless tasks. However, in losing many of these traditional touch points, so have we evolved as a species and lost pieces of ourselves. We have allowed robots in all shapes and sizes to define some very integral elements of our lives and in doing so, removed much of our own ability to take care of ourselves.
Whereas once, we were a society of people who slept and woke by the sun, accurate telling of time and perhaps the vilest of technology’s satanic spawn – the alarm clock – changed our sleep patterns, and more importantly, set the tone for a culture driven by hyper-efficiency and to-the-second timing. First thing each morning, we allow a small machine to scream at us until we begin our day and in doing so, lock ourselves into an unnatural state of existence; living by the artificial construct of the 24hr clock instead of the age-old guide, the sun. We wake ourselves when we’re still tired and we sleep in when we don’t need to knowing that we have a “few more minutes.” This practice was found so unnatural that it even facilitated another key invention in the digital time-keeping era: the snooze button.
Within the workforce, robots have been changing our social structures, economic behaviours and primary tasks for nearly 100 years. Since the dawn of the industrial revolution and assembly line manufacturing, business has strived to algorithmize operations, remove inefficiency and where possible, take human interaction completely out of the equation. The impact of robotics in the business world is impossible to ignore and has caused a rapid acceleration in the evolution of job functions, particularly in western nations. Our great-grandparents were primarily tradesmen, our grandparents began to explore greater entrepreneurialism, our parents became office managers and our generation has become an army of digital workers. Robots are slowly but surely heralding the death of the blue collar.
But should we be concerned by any of this? As I described before, the process is an evolution – one where “fittest” is defined not by survival but instead by task automation. We are changing as a society and while elements of this change are undeniably unnatural, human beings have adapted to worse and will continue to adapt. We will continue to distance ourselves further from skilled labour, connection to the earth and the humility of working with our hands. However, only time will tell the true impact that this will have on the human body, mind and soul.
Just remember, Will Smith won’t always be around to save us.