Saturday, 16 October 2010

Humans Imitating Robots Imitating Humans: Consequences of the Late Arrival of The Future

Capital has a problem (one of many, you might add). The Future was supposed to have arrived by now. For a hundred years we've been promised a fully automated robot slave force by the millenium, but despite the fact that we can train a robot to play the violin (albeit, quite badly), we still haven't got them to replace all human drudgery. The software hasn't quite lived up to its promises, so we've been forced to fall back on the wetware (that's you and me). If, as this Guardian article somewhat apocalyptically suggest, we have all grown rather blasé about the horror of sweatshops, is it because we had rather grown accustomed to the idea that they were all staffed by machines by now?

In a sense, nothing has changed, except the language, and it is a language of lowered expectations. William Gibson waves goodbye to the "Big F Future", and Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon (and, if the implications of this article are to be taken seriously, proud owner of not one but two first edition copies of Mein Kampf), invents something he calls "Artificial Artificial Intelligence."

Behind the notion of AAI lies the admission that there are still a number of things, simple "processing tasks", that computers really aren't very good at - recognising patterns and faces, for instance - so why not outsource them to a hive of live humans, caged like monkeys and attached to a bio-mechanical matrix through a tube running directly into their brains? Actually, Bezos's company, dubbed Amazon Mechanical Turk, hasn't quite got round to the cages or the bio-mechanical matrix yet, but no doubt he's working on it.

The original "Turk" was a fairground wheeze which toured the palaces, museums, cafes and hotel lobbies of Europe and America from the late eighteenth to the mid nineteenth centuries. Apparently composed of nothing more than clockwork and mechanics, the device was nonetheless able to play chess - and win - against such luminaries as Napolean, Catherine the Great, Benjamin Franklin and Edgar Allen Poe, few of whom guessed the truth that, like Bezos's flesh-powered search engine, the machine concealed a rather nimble human operator.

This scenario of humans-replacing-machines-replacing-humans in recursively stacked hierarchies, recalls an old Richard Matheson story, called 'Steel', about an eponymously nicknamed ex-boxer, from back in the days when real human boxers would actually fight it out in the ring. Nowadays, our erstwhile pugilist owns and 'manages' a robot boxer, a clapped out old B2 called 'Battling Maxo'. Just before the big match Battling Maxo's circuits give out and the spring in its robot arm breaks, so Steel decides to go into the ring himself, imitating his defunct robot, and fight the new B7, 'Maynard Flash' with his bare hands. Hopelessly defeated by the robot boxer, Steel crawls out of the ring and demands his pay from the promoter. And therein lies the final insult - just like the Amazon Mechanical Turk and other AAI companies, not only is the labour punishing and dehumanising, but the pay is a pittance compared to what would be given to the operator of a real computer. Steel is only paid half what he would have got had his robot been up to the bout.