Our Complicated Love-Hate Relationship With Robots

The official end of the Iraq war came quietly at the end of a tumultuous year, and with the now-obligatory shots of the last units to roll across the border into Kuwait, a reversal of how it started in 2003. Only, we didn't view them in just one or two dimensions. Instead, we were able to watch the convoys pass out of the country the US has occupied for eight years from behind and overhead — a drone's-eye view. In the years since we were first shown “smart bomb” perspectives of the first Gulf War, we’ve become socially numb to the jittery black and white video of friend and foe alike scampering across desert terrain. This may be the first episode in which the public vantage point was the machine vision aspect of a robot shutting the door behind us.

Looking back over 2011 for big themes, one common thread emerged, punctuated at the end of the year by the Iraq withdrawal: our relationship with ‘bots intensified and became more complex. I’m not just talking robots as strictly defined—mechanical automata that respond to our needs and demands. I mean all of the constituent pieces that may make them up: soft bits like artificial intelligence (AI), avatars, agents, malware bots, and so on, as well as their physical forms, from service ‘bots to entertaining simulacra to simple DIY contraptions. It seems as though, over the course of the last year, our love-hate relationship with robots became, well... complicated.

I’ve touched on aspects of our ability to create and experiment with robotics cheaply, as well as our conflicted economic relationships with AI. But if we want to put things in artificial calendar terms, 2011 may have been the year when, like young parents, we started really looking at our own creations, thinking about their and our roles and interactions, and began interacting with the robotic world as if it is forgotten aspect of the animal kingdom, complete with its own animal psychology, anthropology, and perhaps even sociology. Designers, artists and technologists are exploring more deeply than ever brefore how we can domesticate something as threatening as a drone, taking our first steps toward cataloguing their culture, and learning how to build a more social interaction with them. At the same time, we continue to sterilize them, launching mechanized proxy wars on the other side of the world that effectively dehumanize conflict.  

A Different Difference Engine
An old fear point re-emerging in this unstable economic environment is the worry about robots stepping into our jobs, effectively rendering human labour obsolete. As I argued in November, to assume this is to assume AI can handle the necessary jumps from analysis to synthesis to abstraction. Still, the march is on, and we are struggling to understand how we will relate to our new mechanical co-workers. Interesting times lie ahead when some business owners replace low-wage, suicide-prone workers with robotic substitutes, as Foxconn’s Terry Gou has announced he is doing by creating, in his words, a “robot kingdom” within his factories. So while these factories are staffed with machines that can fill demands without complaining, the factories themselves are producing kinder, gentler, smarter bots, like Siri, to keep us company in our daily, perhaps less employed, lives. Maybe this will become an new type of ethics issue - a labor relations case study for the later 21st century.

Behold, the New Aesthetic
We are also starting to examine how robots, cognitive infants that they are, see us and our world, in some cases to help them live more comfortably alongside us. Matt Jones of London-based design firm BERG talks about the sensor vernacular, “an aesthetic born of the grain of seeing/computation. Of computer-vision, of 3d-printing; of optimised, algorithmic sensor sweeps and compression artefacts. Of LIDAR and laser-speckle.” James Bridle of Really Interesting Group labels these digitized, processed visuals, ridden with robotic artifacts, the New Aesthetic. He, like others, senses that the insight gained from contemplating the robot-filtered landscape is going to take us somewhere in understanding this complicated relationship.

We humans are also struggling as we dip in and out of the robot’s sensory environment, experiencing more and more hours inside their processed worlds. The US military is evaluating how best to handle human-drone relationships among its pilots, according to US public radio station NPR, in part because of the stresses that arise through the remote-control arrangement of drone-based warfare. Cognitive dissonance is becoming a critical issue for those who spend so much time seeing the field of combat through the eyes of drones.

Bring on the ‘Bot Whisperer
We’ll need to get used to seeing the benign, geometric world of the sensor vernacular, as well as the unblinking, unsleeping view of the eye in the sky, and become more comfortable making decisions in both environments. As we develop more sociable, domesticated assistants, help-meets, and even protectors, I suspect that we will find ourselves being re-programming in much the same way domestic dogs and cats have been doing since they were first domesticated, quietly nudging us into their need-states more than we do with them into ours. We already talk of an impending drought of empathy as we drift deeper into computer-mediated society, generations raised on steady diets of simulation increasingly distanced from the realities, necessities and benefits of human socialization. As fast as we try to adapt AIs to our own needs, it’s a fair bet we’ll find ourselves bending to theirs.

So in addition to all of the intense human events of 2011, I think the year is going to be seen as a period where we seriously started to look at each other — us, and the bots we build — and work out how we can co-exist with this new species we’ve introduced into our ecosystem. As we hasten our own technological progress and release more of these denizens into our environment, it’s going to be a messy relationship, increasingly like a kind of cybernetic wildlife management.


Scott Smith is the author of Discontinuities, CI's monthly column on disruptive technology and innovation in emerging markets. He is founder and principal of Changeist, LLC, a foresight and strategic design consultancy advising organizations as they navigate complex futures.