A New Creature Roams the Earth
Sometime this year or the next, an event comparable to the development of organized agriculture some ten thousand years ago may occur: large autonomous robots are to be released into the wild to rove American streets and highways. Google is lobbying the Nevada state legislature to allow its robotic cars to ply their roads sans drivers. These cars will presumably have access to Google’s numerous technological resources, such as web search, Google Maps, Google Earth, Google Voice (yes, they’ll have cell phones), gmail, text to speech, and Google Translate, aside from onboard GPS, computers, laser rangefinders and god knows what else. They will be skulking around, knowing exactly where they are and where they are going, who lives nearby, what businesses are around them, and with their face recognition software and vast library of images they will be able to recognize many of the people they see as they drive around. If those people have a gmail account, Google has already been kind enough to read their mail, filter out the spam, and sort it in order of importance. As they drive around, all the technologies that are put in play are improved, refined, and evolved. Large quantities of additional data enter the Googleplex for further classification and storage, adding ever more to the machine knowledge already in their computing empire. They will undoubtedly also be developing and discovering use cases integrating the robots into their menu of business products and services. This marks the end of that unimaginably long time on earth during which only creatures of biological origin roamed the lands. Our mechanical progeny are finally being born.
As they cruise our cities and towns, they will know where they are, and just as importantly, know where we are. When see them driving by you might as well wave at them, because as time goes by they will be increasingly likely to know who you are, and maybe even make a good guess as to where you are going and what you are doing. They know where all the WiFi hotspots are, and which are not encrypted. They will know which of their logged in users are there as well.
Local miscreants will learn to make sport of them. The cars must make use of maps and other data collected beforehand, or they will become confused. If enough changes are placed around them, they will need to stop and engage in significant scanning of their environment and consultations with the mothership, and meanwhile they are fair game for mischief. Google will need to develop strategies to deal with such playfulness.
Why the bombastic comparison with the rise of agriculture near the beginning of the Holocene or Anthropocene Epoch? Farming allowed a drastic reorganization of labor and the creation and concentration of significant new wealth on a scale that was probably unimaginable to hunter-gatherers. The amount of time and labor needed to supply a typical meal dropped to a fraction of what it had been before, freeing up labor that was instead used to build civil infrastructure and centralized imperial civilizations. A far more vigorous economy swept over the land, in which trade and handicrafts expanded from cottage industries into international commerce. Craftspeople and merchants proliferated and cross-pollinated societies, and powerful plutocracies appeared, asserting their right to dominate their fellows as god-given.
Large scale slavery and human trafficking appeared both as a result of this new concentration of wealth and as its sustained creator, a self-perpetuating feedback loop. These grand empires of the past cemented their hold on power through massive military and security organizations, which in turn supported a lucrative arms race that has endured for thousands of years. It is a prime driving force for enormous wealth concentration even today.
The Post-Anthropocene Epoch
With the birth of large commercial enterprises owning fleets of autonomous robots, a new era of cost-effective “labor” akin to slavery is born. The robots are cheaper even now than human employees, and the game becomes one of creating robots that substitute for human labor whenever it is practical to do so. Robots will replace human workers when 1) they can be programmed or trained to do the same tasks with comparable accuracy and productivity, 2) they can be cost effectively outfitted with mechanical attachments appropriate to the job, and 3) this is achieved at an annual amortized cost that is comparable or less expensive than a human being doing the same job at the same level of productivity. The distinction between programming and training is significant. Writing more and more computer code to create more and more behaviors is self-limiting. It is an obstacle that slows the development of robots that can replace humans. The holy grail is in devising robot architectures that can be trained, rather than programmed. If the training can be based on videos of humans doing the job, possibly complemented with live training, then far more complex behaviors can be had from the robots at much lower cost. With additional focused video or on the job training, the robots’ behaviors can be continuously improved. When this is achieved on a large scale with robots versatile enough to make use of it, the fate of human labor will be sealed.
Some human jobs have moved in that direction already. It is not hard to imagine robots operating the garbage trucks that ply our neighborhoods with large and rather dexterous claws to pick up garbage cans and empty them into the truck. Especially easy to imagine because the first autonomous robots will themselves be motor vehicles. Fast food restaurants, factories, delivery services, and many other businesses are also mechanized and carefully structured enough that autonomous robots will not be so difficult to fold into the mix. It is getting easier and easier to imagine such a future.
All of this is most certainly comparable to the spectacular changes that occurred in human affairs with the adoption of organized agriculture and the management of its resulting wealth creation. It is worth noting that the consequences of the application of diverse fleets of autonomous robots to industrial-scale military operations will also be comparable, and will very likely far exceed them. A whole new book of Asymmetric warfare will be written in our lifetimes.
The time to ponder our fate in a world swarming with robots has finally arrived.