Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Robots of the World - You Have Nothing to Lose But Your Blockchains (2015)

The Pathfinders Column from the October 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

The bosses own the means of production – that's what makes them bosses. So what will happen when the means of production own themselves? Er, come again? Yes, we are talking about automated intelligent production and distribution systems, managing themselves, recycling their income back into their own maintenance programmes, entirely without human agency. You call a cab, the cab turns up and it takes you (yes, it's driverless) where you want to go, debits your online account, and uses that income to buy its next 10 gallons of fuel and pay its automated garage cleaning and servicing subscription.

This is the world of the blockchain, an automated self-management security system which has been crucial so far to the success of Bitcoins (New Scientist, 12 September). By keeping track of every single transaction within the Bitcoin economy, the blockchain is able to prevent anyone conjuring up new 'money' out of nothing (as banks are alleged to do by currency cranks), thus avoiding financial melt-down. Cynics would point to the very large thefts of Bitcoins which have in the past almost sunk the system, but blaming the blockchain for what criminals do would be like blaming the bank for sponsoring bank robbers. Now new applications are being developed to apply blockchains to other fields of endeavour, with the utopian idea that ultimately the bosses will be abolished and the world will run itself.

Except that it's not the bosses – the owners - who will be abolished, only their managers. Sitting above the entire global production factory of human-termites overseen by machine-gangers and cyber-foremen will be that same class of obscenely-privileged fat fucks which already exists today, only with even more wealth and even less to do to keep it.

There's been much paranoia recently about the dangers of runaway AI and breathless speculation about Terminator-like scenarios where the robots take over and kill us all. Much of this was caused by Professor Stephen Hawking who seems overly fond of giving the greedy press tasty soundbites in the manner of Dad's Army's lugubrious Private Frazer grunting 'We're all doomed'. But robots would only do what we told them to do, and it seems hard to imagine why we'd build ones that didn't. Even if out of sheer laziness we built ones that made all our decisions for us (like politicians?), it seems equally hard to see what possible motive they might have in wanting to kill us off, unless we unintentionally designed them with the psychopathic tendencies of an average multinational corporation. What's much more likely is that we are the ones who are dooming ourselves by behaving like the very robots we're so afraid of. From this perspective, devising a way to lock ourselves permanently into a future of automated robotic slavery, where the real robots are us and not the machines, seems quite a plausible way forward for capitalism. Let's see, what does 'robot' mean again? Oh yeah, that's right. 'Worker.'

Sex and a cigarette

But if we're putting robots out of jobs by doing the jobs ourselves, does that make the robots redundant? Apparently it's not game over for them while they can still resort to the oldest game. There is a burgeoning industry in sex robot design and manufacture. Some prototypes are in development and some primitive models, costing around £5,000 each, are already reaching the market, though more as a proof of principle than in the expectation of any serious sales.

It may sound like science fiction, but this has been looming for years. Henrik Christensen of the European Robotics Research Network announced to a surprised Sunday Times reporter in June 2006 that 'people are going to be having sex with robots within five years' (source: Wikipedia). As it turned out this was a somewhat premature ejaculation on his part, but nonetheless things have moved on to the point where now two academics are calling for the banning of sex robots (BBC News, 15 September).

The argument boils down to a fear that the machines will objectify women, which is to say further objectify women. Underneath this rather vague claim lurks a darker implication, that the ability to do vile and unspeakable things to a robot will foreshadow a desire to do those things to real women. This idea, not unfamiliar from video game debates, is further sensationalised by the inclusion of children in the argument. Since no known child sex robots are under development, the obvious intention is to bury rational debate under a mountain of moral outrage.

What are the real grounds for such fears? Would users of these devices be more or less likely to see women or children in a dehumanised way? Might it make no difference, or indeed might it go the other way, with women and children finding themselves freed from potential sexual predators and thus enjoying greater net safety in society?

It's impossible to say because the robots don't exist yet. In the circumstances, demanding a ban seems perverse, and it's hard not to suspect a moral 'Yuk' factor at work, trumping every other consideration. Such people don't care what the facts are, and don't care about millions of lonely inadequate men and women who might benefit, they just know that sex robots are 'wrong'.

An oddly parallel argument is raging right now over e-cigarettes. The British Medical Association and the World Health Organisation have come out against them, arguing that there is no good evidence that they result in reduction or cessation of cigarette smoking (and conversely may even encourage it). Following their lead, many countries and organisations are banning them from public places, and all sorts of restrictions on sales are being imposed. On the other side, the 'vapers' are furious at what they see as victimisation. They are trying to give up the demon weed, as they see it, by using something incontestably less dangerous than tobacco, and instead of lending support the BMA and others are absurdly trying to create difficulties for them. There is no good evidence of benefit in the case of coffee, or chocolate, or weekends in Cornwall. Society doesn't and shouldn't automatically ban things on the basis of some dubious 'precautionary principle'. If it did that we'd never have climbed out of the trees in the first place.

Has the BMA overstepped its authority? Vapers, at least those with a sense of social responsibility, are not demanding the right to vape in public places if it's going to annoy other people. But equally they feel affronted at being the subject of a ban imposed without any substantive evidence of harm. People are not banned from wearing suffocatingly bad perfume despite its known harm to asthmatics. People are not banned from Tube trains if they have excessive BO. People are not banned from farting in lifts. Or from driving diesel cars. The BMA's position seems to be that, regardless of the facts, smoking or vaping is just 'wrong'.

A society that bans things first and ask questions later, or perhaps never, is not a society aiming to encourage open-mindedness in its citizens and in its debates. For socialists, the prospects for rational debate about socialism thereby diminish, and that's something that should have everyone fuming.

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