We are the robots: How and why our technology is changing us

“We’re functioning automatic
And we are dancing mechanic
We are the robots, we are the robots…” (Kraftwerk, 1978).

Kraftwerk’s The Robots, features on the band’s 1978 album Man-Machine. It reflects both the band’s cyborg-like stage theatrics, their futurist aesthetic, and society’s pre-occupation with mechanical and artificial humans. This fascination with robotic or artificial humans has presented itself in various forms for century’s. Such as Kempelen’s Mechanical Turk in 1769, the chess playing mechanical automaton (Collins & d’Escrivan, 2007), Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818 (Shelley, 1992) and Yul Brynner’s robotic cowboy character in film Westworld (Crichton, 1973) to name a few.

But Kraftwerk’s lyrics also elude to another interesting concept regarding the human-machine relationship, and perhaps suggest that we ourselves are the robots, or have become, or are becoming more robot-like ‘functioning automatic and dancing mechanic’ maybe as a consequence of our relationship with robotic and automated technology.

Although seemingly just the realm of science fiction, there are various avenues of thought, some which will be presented and discussed here, that suggest this gradual metamorphosis of humans into some kind of robotic or cyborg hybrid, may be slowly creeping upon us and, of which, we remain largely oblivious.

This essay takes inspiration, not just from the lyrics of Kraftwerks’ The Robots and science-fiction, but also from Langdon Winner’s The Whale and the Reactor (Winner, 1986). These ideas are also discussed alongside those from recent media articles on robotics and automation in the workplace, and several other contemporary cultural references, in order to discuss the more general question of: How, and why, is human behaviour and the human experience becoming more machine and robot-like?

Throughout, the ideas surrounding this process of potential and gradual robotic assimilation are related, in most part, to our continued development, appropriation and daily interaction with, robotic, automated and artificially intelligent technical innovations in the workplace.

That said, the general context of my discussion will attempt to transcend what Winner (1986) terms ‘naive technological determinism’, a position that attributes societal development and cultural values to the technologies that are available to it, without considering the circumstances under which those technologies have been made available.

Winner (1986) points out, a position that accesses a technology from the viewpoint of its social origins is not without its issues, namely that it suggests it is not the technology that is relevant, but the social circumstances behind its creation and implementation, and is therefore more representative of a social deterministic position.

In order to address this problem, Winner (1986) advocates a theory of technological politics, which can complement this social deterministic position by attributing political values to technological objects themselves. This concept not only provides a position from which to examine the subject from a range of interesting perspectives, but also provides the possibility of a deeper understanding of the human-technology relationship. To understand why a technological object may have been designed and implemented in a certain way, the use it implies, prior to its actual use, or rather, the technological object’s inherent politics, must enable us to better understand the relationship we have with that technological object.

This better understanding of the human-machine relationship that Winner’s (1986) theory of technological politics offers us, also has the potential to provide us with a framework from which one can begin to determine which are the intended, the unintended, and the inevitable consequences of technical innovation.

Winner (1986) argues that our use of language and choice of words, specifically those which reflect computational or technical terminology when used in a social context (one can easily conjure up examples such as ‘networking’, ‘feedback’ and ‘downtime’) demonstrate an acknowledgement that our everyday actions and interactions are inexplicably linked to, and have become merged with, the technology we use, what Winner (1986) terms a ‘technopolitan culture’. Although talking like a robot and behaving like a robot are very different things, the important point here is the subconscious acceptance, and the extent, of this apparent technological assimilation.

Regarding this, and continuing his more general theme concerning the impact of technology on society, or towards his philosophy of technology, Winner (1986) claims that just like our use of language, our seemingly more mundane, everyday actions, unless offered a reasonable level of scrutiny or being performed for the first time, largely become part of an unconscious process.

This notion is extended, in true classic, dystopian science-fiction style, to the physical assimilation of humans and robots. The author, computer scientist, inventor and futurist Ray Kurzwell, (Kurzwell in Joy, 2000) claims that as the sophistication of our technology accelerates humans will become ‘fused’ with robots.

In the same article this theme is picked up, and afforded some context, by Danny Hillis, cofounder of Thinking Machines Corporation (Hillis in Joy, 2000), who suggests that our future robotic selves will come about as a result of our quest for immortality, or at least, our persistent endeavour to prolong our life expectancy, and this process will not be alarming, or even very noticeable, as it will be a very slow and gradual one.

Rokeby (Rokeby in Dodsworth, 1998) presents an interesting example of how robotic behaviour can manifest itself in physical human behaviour. During the development of an interactive, gestural musical interface Rokeby (Rokeby in Dodsworth, 1998) describes how, completely unknown to himself until he played back video footage of his experiments, his movements and actions had become so unnaturally machine-like and jerky in an attempt to work with, and gain results from his project, that they bore little resemblance to human movement, for which the project was intended.

Interestingly, Rokeby’s observations relate directly to Winner’s (1986) idea that technological systems that require humans as an operating part have the potential to manifest a change in human behaviour, and this behavioural change is often essential in order for the system to function properly. Additionally, he proposes that these behavioural changes are soon assimilated into patterns of activities that are accepted as being normal.

These observations are no more evident than in the workplace, where humans are working alongside automated technologies as a part of a far larger technological system, where one need only to visualise workers performing single, repetitive and mechanical task as a part of a larger, industrialised production line.

One can also, perhaps, identify this type of repetitive and mechanical behaviour in our interaction with automated systems of communication and organisation in the home and office. As our eyes quickly scan our inboxes and social media news feeds for keywords of interest and faces we recognise, and our physical attachment to our smartphones begin to echo McLuhan’s idea of our technologies being an extension of our human bodies, and evidence of our servitude to it (McLuhan, 1967).

It is also through McLuhan’s (1967) postulation regarding the invention of type and printing as being an influencing factor in the creation of linear and sequential thought, that we can appreciate the profound effect that these more recent technological appropriations are having on us.

It may be useful at this stage to look at the original meaning of the word robot. Taken from the Czech robota, meaning forced labour, and thought to have been first used in a technological context to describe artificial humans in Karel Capek’s play Rossum’s Universal Robots (1921). Rossum’s robots are also made from a chemical batter, rather than mechanics, and can do more than twice the work of a normal human (Long, 2011).

Within this context it is also interesting, and somewhat eerie, to note that as an Amazon employee, where workers operate alongside their robotic counterparts fulfilling the company’s logistics requirements, you are released from work, rather than being sacked (Cadwalladr, 2013), suggesting that you have served your time, or your purpose.

Harris (2017) notes that the implementation of robots in Amazon’s fulfilment warehouses has saved employees miles of walking and has dramatically cut the time it takes to complete an order. Employees now remain more or less stationary with screens telling them what to get next, and robots delivering the necessary shelves to them.

But this robotic automation has placed new demands on Amazon’s employees, with practically unrealistic and physically exhausting order completion targets being expected of them, and their performance being constantly monitored (Cadwalladr, 2013). Though this maybe just a side-effect of the partial automation of industry, where human workers struggle to keep up with their robotic counterparts and, once full automation has been realised, this will no longer be the case.

Greenfield (2017) suggests that, as the implementation of automation in the workplace continues, the labour force that remains within the system will have an increasingly difficult time:

“This shrunken workforce will be asked to do more, for lower wages, at a yet higher pace. Amazon is again the leading indicator here. Its warehouse workers are hired on fixed, short-term contracts, through a deniable outsourcing agency, and precluded from raises, benefits, opportunities for advancement or the meaningful prospect of permanent employment. They work under conditions of “rationalized” oversight in the form of performance metrics that are calibrated in real time. Any degree of discretion or autonomy they might have retained is ruthlessly pared away by efficiency algorithm. The point couldn’t be made much more clearly: these facilities are places that no one sane would choose to be if they had any other option at all.” (Greenfield, 2017).

What’s interesting here is that Greenfield (2017) appears to attribute the consequences of technological automation on working conditions and working behaviour to the economics of the labour market, and not directly to the technology itself, suggesting that lack of employment opportunities will enable employers to exploit their workforce to an even greater degree.

Greenfield (2017) also suggests that the skills required within the labour force will be increasingly diluted as a consequence of production line organisation being determined by algorithms that break down jobs into increasingly simple tasks. This, along with Moravec’s paradox (the notion that artificial intelligence finds the difficult things easy and the easy things difficult) points towards an increase in demand being placed on the workforce, both financially and physically, as jobs are deskilled and production is accelerated.

This therefore implies that it is not the technology that is effecting human working behaviour and working conditions, but the way in which the technology is being implemented, or the means for which it is being implemented. To go back to Winner’s theory of technological philosophy, we could conclude that technology like Amazon’s robots do have a politics, the politics of capitalist profit and economic efficiency, not the politics of social good.

As Winner (1986) points out:

“If the experience of modern society shows us anything, however, it is that technologies are not merely aids to human activity, but also powerful forces acting to reshape that activity and its meaning. The introduction of a robot to an industrial workplace not only increases productivity, but often radically changes the process of production, redefining what “work” means in that setting.” Winner (1986).

The discussion thus far appears to suggest that we are sleep-walking into a technological dystopia of unintended consequences, a low-gradient, but nonetheless very slippery slope with unsavoury results. But would it be right to class this as an unintended consequence of the application of our technology?

But what can we really imagine the consequences being if we are applying technology solely based on economic efficiency? It would be misguided to believe that such an approach would result in a technological utopia of provision devoid of labour that is so often referred to with regards to mass-automated production, unless perhaps if you take the Marxist view that it is necessary to allow the capitalist means of production to develop to their zenith before that utopia is achievable.

As response to this, Winner (1986) argues for the socially responsible implementation of such technologies, which could be achievable via a democratic process capable of determining which technologies are compatible with the type of society we wish to live in, producing results vastly different from those which are a consequence of implementing technologies just for the purposes of economic efficiency.

This approach that Winner (1998) outlines, may therefore enable us to determine to some degree the destiny and the trajectory of the relationship we have with our technology, rather than remaining at the liberty of the consequences of its economic application. As Joy (2000) points out, it is, as yet, undecided whether we will fall victim to these technologies or not.

Throughout the process of writing this essay I have been reminded of an early piece of video work by the artist Richard Serra entitled Television Delivers People (Serra, 1973), as the title suggests the piece reflects on the commercial power of television to shape and deliver its audience as consumers to the television advertisers. Perhaps in a similar way, our more recent automated technologies are shaping and delivering us for their own purposes also.

Joy (2000) also makes a pertinent point with regards to the differing characteristics of robots compared with other technologies. Pointing to self-replication as being the distinguishing danger factor of robots, he arrives at this conclusion via a comparison of self-replication in computer networks, something that causes technical issues and can lead to crashes in systems and networks, in robots, he argues, this has the potential to harm the real world, not the virtual.

As way of a conclusion it may be worth noting the interesting position this leaves us in regarding Azimov’s (1950) Three Laws of Robotics, which rely on a distinction between the human and the robotic, if, according to Hillis (Hillis in Joy, 2000) and Kurzwell (Kurzwell in Joy, 2000), we become one with our technology. Azimov’s laws of robotic ethics have their roots in science-fiction, but they have been used to control, develop and determine robotic behaviour in real scientific contexts also (Deng, 2015).

Whilst I appreciate that this is a multi-faceted, and in may ways fantastical, subject with many potential avenues of enquiry and discussion, hopefully it has provided an interesting framework within which to discuss some important issues relating to technical innovation and its effects on society.

References

Azimov, I. (1950). I, Robot. London: HarperCollins.
Cadwalladr, C. (2013). My week as an Amazon insider. Retrieved January 12, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2013/dec/01/week-amazon-insider-feature-treatment-employees-work
Collins, N. & d’Escrivan, J. (2007). The Cambridge Companion to Electronic Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Crichton, M. (1973). Westworld. [Motion picture]. United States: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Deng, B. (2015). Machine ethics: The robot’s dilemma. Retrieved January 12, 2017, from https://www.nature.com/news/machine-ethics-the-robot-s-dilemma-1.17881
Greenfield A. (2017). Radical Technology. London: Verso.
Harris, J. (2017). Meet your new cobot: is a machine coming for your job? Retrieved January 12, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/money/2017/nov/25/cobot-machine-coming-job-robots-amazon-ocado
Joy, B. (2000). Why The Future Doesn’t Need Us. Retrieved January 12, 2017, from https://www.wired.com/2000/04/joy-2/
Kraftwerk. (1978). The Robots. On Man-Machine. Düsseldorf: EMI Electrola.
Long, T. (2011). Jan. 25th, 1921: Robots First Czech In. Retrieved January 12, 2017, from https://www.wired.com/2011/01/0125robot-cometh-capek-rur-debut/
McLuhan, M. (1967). The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. London: Penguin.
Serra, R. (1973) Television Delivers People. [Video]. Museum of Modern Art: New York. Retrieved January 12, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LvZYwaQlJsg
Shelley, M. (1992). Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus. London: Wordsworth Editions.
Winner, L. (1986). The Whale and the Reactor. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

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