Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Big Brother and the Robots (2009)

From the October 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

A few weeks ago we held a meeting in London entitled 'Here Come the Robots'. It was a look at the impact and implications of technological advance on society. A lively discussion followed with various opinions and reservations expressed.

Few people would deny that among the changes technology has brought there have been tremendous improvements to our productive capabilities, if not always to our personal circumstances, or that in a socialist society modern technology will be vital in making sure everyone gets adequate food, housing and medical care.

Not everyone is happy with the intrusions and impositions made on our lives by new technology, however, or the fact that many of us seem content to be constantly connected to our computers, mobile phones or iPods. "Don't people read books anymore?" asked one visitor, and he was not entirely reassured when it was pointed out that it is now possible to walk round with a digital bookcase of books in your pocket.

The question that concerns most of us, of course, is who is in control of all this technology? Under capitalism, it's not us. A couple of stories recently in the papers highlighted the question. Ironically, the first one concerned George Orwell's novel, 1984. "Big brother would have approved", said the article. (Guardian, 20 July).

In a mix-up over copyright, Amazon, the online booksellers, have, without warning, used their remote technology to erase customers' digital copies of George Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984. The cost of the books, which had been bought and paid for, was refunded we are assured. But how reassuring is it to know that someone, at an anonymous desk somewhere has the power to do that? In Orwell's novel a device known as a "memory hole" was used to eradicate unapproved literature. Amazon can do the same, it seems, at the touch of a computer keyboard.

The second story is nothing to do with fiction. It involves the latest must-have military toy being tested by the US army. Unfortunately, this is no high-tech cuddly teddy bear.

Rumours have been coming out about the Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot (EATR for short) an unstoppable military robot that powers itself by devouring any organic material in its path - trees, grass and even, according to some reports, dead bodies on the battlefield.

Its inventors are horrified that such suggestions have been made. Although the EATR does indeed power itself on organic material, it is not intended to be fuelled by dead soldiers they say. "We completely understand the public's concern about futuristic robots feeding on the human population, but that is not our mission" they assure us in the Guardian article (21 July).

The machine apparently has a built-in system which helps it determine the nature of the material being ingested. And according to Dr Robert Finkelstein, one of its inventors, "If it's not on the menu, it's not going to eat it".

It's all about good taste, then?