On robots and communism

While the kids were playing in the surf, I was slathered up with SPF 500 sunscreen, hunkered down with my beach reading; Robopocalypse, by Daniel H. Wilson (Robocalypse, Daniel! It should have been Robocalypse!). It’s a pretty good read, in the spirit of World War Z and other pseudo-documentary accounts of worlds yet to come. Of course, this begs the question of when, in the spirit of Alien versus Predator we get the World War Z / Robopocalypse crossover three-way (in the immortal words of Pepper Brooks, “Usually you pay double for that kind of action ….”).

But I do digress. That’s what I do.

Anyway, Robopocalypse (Robocalypse!) is like Terminator minus nukes plus Emancipation Proclamation. I give it one-and-a-half extensible appendages up.

And then I open this morning’s paper, and semi-buried on page 4 is the heart-warming story “Robots take over factory jobs.” It is mostly content-free, but has the following memorable line “At a sister factory [to a human assembly line] in the Dutch countryside 128 robot arms do the same work with yogalike flexibility. One robot arm endlessly forms three perfect bends in two connector wires and slips them into holes almost too small for the eye to see.”

Now, despite what you techies may think, I have not been living in a bio-inspired cave. I do know that robots are pretty kickass. Actually, I just got back from DNA18, the annual conference dedicated to DNA computing and nanotechnology, and I heard a wonderful talk from Radhika Nagpal of MIT and the Wyss Institute, on swarm robotics. They are getting very good, these distributed amorphous systems, and you can totally imagine them on the urban battlefield as scouts or more.

In fact, for a long time I have known robots are getting so good that most of the research in my lab has been geared towards Judgement Day, the day when robots take over. Ha, ha, just kidding, we know that already happened. What? You doubt me? Go review the Citizens United ruling and then let’s talk. In what way is a corporate entity with large resources at its disposal manipulating human political processes not the economic equivalent of Robopocalypse? Yes, yes, companies have human Boards and whatnot, but they are much more than the sum of their elite human directors. Capital finally has the ability to direct its own evolution, and it should be interesting to see where that all goes. Indeed, several years back I tried to incite student programmers to build me the equivalent of E-Trade that could press its own button, as a sort of distributed economic version of BitTorrent (or whatever generation of piracy rules the waves these days). Nothing came of that particular version of Code Salad, which is as it should be when a biologist looks into the Internet abyss. But that’s what high frequency trading is for, amateurs need not apply.

Which brings us, veering as is my wont, to communism. Not a fan, as you know, but it has some riffs you can dance to. What happens to “From each according to their ability to each according to their need” (replacing male-centered pronoun) when very few of us have an ability worth squat? Better futurists than I have already been over the “humans in the dustbin of history” trope. But we’re living it, in real-time, and we should have a better response than squatting in parks and shining “We are the 99%” on skyscrapers. Knowledge is not power. Knowledge is the means to acquire power. Power is the process of using knowledge for a purpose, good, bad, or indifferent. We do not need to make ourselves into human robots, which really did seem to be the ultimate goal of communism, we need to make ourselves into *better* humans so that we have a fighting chance against the robots.

With that in mind, I continue to wonder where the augments are? Where are the factory training programs for Waldoes (boy does that date me)? Where are the personal exoskeletons? Why don’t I have my own drones to check out the traffic situation on Mopac? There is not really a personal consumer market in human augments. And that is because our economic system has decided we are cogs in the machine, and replaceable cogs at that. The system is beginning to direct its own evolution, and we have not bought in in an intimate enough way. We have the amazing, amazing box on our desk that lets us multiply our productivity to a degree that would make an overachieving ant blush, but that box, even with all its Facebooks and Twitters and Pinterests, was really designed just to let us get inside the machine, not be part of it, especially now that there is a self-sustaining ‘it.’ The whack-job Tea Party types vaguely perceive that we are losing our control over the real world, and respond with Gunz and Truck Nutz and vociferous repetitions of Jeebus in the public square. Good luck with that, tell me how throwing those wooden shoes is working out for you.

We need augments. We need human:electronic interfaces. We need to be stronger, faster, smarter. We need to rebuild ourselves, and for way, way less than $6 million a pop. Only then can we rebuild our economic and political systems in some way that favors us, because otherwise we are the dinosaurs in this equation. Against generations of advanced robotics that are coming online with remarkable rapidity we have … education. Seriously? That’s our response? The three Rs versus Big Rob? As I am fond of saying: wug.

We need an epiphany, and in many ways that epiphany is … DNA nanotechnology. The field I am fond of criticizing for its utter uselessness is in fact the route to a future that involves us.

Well, that’s it for today. Back to work.

What, if I told you everything all at once, then why would you ever read this?


- originally posted on Monday, August 20th, 2012