Don’t be afraid of robots—be afraid of becoming one

One of us.
One of us.
Image: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
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Our fantasies about becoming cyborgs are getting ever closer to reality. Recently in the resurrected version of Newsweek (which I suspect is a robot), Kevin Maney wrote an excited article on “brain apps” which monitor EEG signals and allow you to automatically detect when your brain is in a state of “peak productivity.” What’s more, the grandiose claim of these apps is that they will train you to be able to enter peak productivity at will. By analyzing brainwaves and teaching you how to mimic the brain activity of experts, these apps can make you into an expert with minimal training in a fraction of the time it normally takes.  In a few years this type of technology may be implanted, making us truly cyborgs.

We have moved beyond creating robots and software to do work for us. We now want to become robots ourselves so that we can even more work – all the time, in a heightened state of “peak productivity.” Our cyborg fantasies have been completely co-opted by the cult of productivity.  The much-hyped Singularity, in which machine intelligence becomes superintelligence and surpasses human intelligence, and then merges with it (or something), is not about some deep philosophical and technological barrier—it’s about becoming a superworker: a cyborg of extreme productivity.

Since the dawn of the robotic age we have dreamed of a utopian future where benevolent yet super powerful and intelligent robots do all of our menial jobs, handle our daily affairs and allow us to generally take it easy and explore the higher pleasures of leisure. Long before the digital revolution in 1891, Oscar Wilde wrote, “All unintellectual labour, all monotonous, dull labour, all labour that deals with dreadful things, and involves unpleasant conditions, must be done by machinery.” Isn’t this why we invented robots in the first place?

Wilde thought that the purpose of life was amusement, enjoying cultivated leisure, making beautiful things, or simply contemplating the world. He naively thought that the spread sufficiently advanced machinery would allow everyone, including and especially the poor, to be liberated from street sweeping and other degrading types of manual labor (like working at Starbucks today). Wilde continues, “On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends.”

Ever since the Czech playwright Karl Capek gave us the word “robot,” which means worker in Czech, humans have been tantalized by the idea that an intelligent machine could indefatigably and perfectly perform monotonous and dull labor. Indeed, robots now form a critical part of almost all forms of industrial production.

There is a cruel irony in the fact that as machine intelligence increases, as robots become more human-like, one of the only growing job sectors even for university educated people is menial labor. What’s more we are busier than ever, and our working hours have been increasing. Which forces the question, what the hell are all the robots doing?

Despite this we are warned that robots will replace 70% of occupations by 2020. This is often presented as a threat, but wasn’t this the intention all along? To build machines capable of doing our bullshit jobs for us?

Apparently fearing the robot takeover and the potential for a society of  “cultivated leisure” we are now desperately trying to become robots ourselves in order to boost our productivity. While Silicon Valley pumps billions of dollars into realizing the Singularity, app developers, the military and many others are busy trying to decode our brains in order to hijack them into efficient robotic productivity.

Could it be that we’ve been tricked into pouring our innovative energy into making ourselves better slaves? If the digital elite achieves its dream of a perfect union with machines, what becomes of the rest of us who either can’t afford cyborgification or who actually enjoy life as a regular human being? Would one Singularitized human be expected to handle the workload of 100 unenhanced workers? Robots will have of course taken the rest of the jobs.

Robots were ostensibly meant to allow us to work less (I write about the many benefits of working less in my book Autopilot). Yet we seem now to be attempting a fusion with robots in order brute force our brains into a persistent state of “peak productivity.”  Not only is this questionable from a scientific perspective, but just because we can does not mean we should.