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Monday, April 15, 2013
A great new movie, “Robot and Frank,” offers a humorous and not-so-distant future where personal robots take on roles like caregivers for elderly. A young friend is taking classes at James Madison University to learn robotics.
At a party, we shared favorite sci-fi stories, and I related confusion about the “I Robot” flick. Where are nameless humanoids with briefcases going, I asked, when real humans don’t leave the safety and convenience of a tech cave because robots are doing the work? I questioned his passion, good career choice and inevitable rise of robots. The boy looked sad.
I also love electronic digital toys and tools and even bought a cheap laser level to shine the ray on distant trees and watch a line of light bend around edges of books. Lasers, if not used to blow stuff and each other up, can be way cool. But then there’s the powers of consumerism, expanding tech curiosities into must-have-the-latest-version bigger-screen needs.
“The Hurt Locker” introduced remote toy-like vehicles used to disarm or capture explosive devices. Bad human bombers, good robots! For years already, the main use of robotics has been industrial mass production that supplies our unlimited goods and gear at Walmart prices. But like low-tech Luddite folks imagined years ago, machines sometimes quietly replace less efficient human workers prone to bathroom breaks, infatuations and disrupting social movements. As the cult of efficiency takes hold, we’re encouraged to give up nasty jobs of gross physical labor and mindless repetition for much better information work, like designing robotic workers. Sitting in front of a monitor, tapping away at keyboards in climate-controlled cubicles, is work robots might even find boring and depressing. Since robots don’t feel, as far as we know, brew coffee or use the complex chemical soup humans do to inspire and lift moods, maybe they don’t mind punching out a million all-the-same, wonderful, perfect keyboards.
Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” offered realistic future conflicts encountered as humans of advanced tech society embraced leisure life. In Huxley’s future, bioengineering plays a bigger role than digital technology in freeing an elite class from physical toil and hardship. Nasty physical work is delegated to a lower class of humans who are genetically enhanced for manual labor, appropriate consumption and conformity.
What’s often odd in future scenarios is an assumption humans jump on the bandwagon of every new technology moving us faster than the speed of horse. If twice the speed of horse is great and six times the speed of horse is better, a thousand times the speed of horse must be fantastic!
Why then is the Virginia Horse Center, not far from Lexington, a large local employer? That’s just the speed of horse, version 1. Why do we save up for that special Cajun barbecue meal when it’s been possible for a while to live on pills, powders and tasty soy fake meat? Why would anyone plant a garden when supermarkets overflow with cheap, abundant convenience food? Most of all, why do we still choose the old-fashioned, messy, sometimes dangerous union of male and female to make babies?
Likely even more of us will venture outdoors, hiking the Appalachian Trail with one change of clothes, like a well-educated young friend is planning. Another man spent too much money on a wood stove that burns old-fashioned limbs of tree. Who knows how many still find joy watching a sunflower seed sprout on the window sill or kayaking the river at speeds slower than the speed of horse?
It’s likely the evolution of technology combined with consumer culture will continue encouraging need for personal robot servants and digital friends. But mechanical, even efficient, digital micro-technology has a nasty way of breaking down. Humans are in many ways hopelessly less efficient than robots at making the million perfectly same plastic pieces quickly or rolling around the moon. But we run on a vast array of fuels, everything from mammoth meat to brown rice and Skittles. We can rub two sticks, or ourselves, together, generating survival heat. We grow limbs and organs, don’t get plugged in, know when a joke’s funny, amazingly fall in love, dream up and create the tech tools, toys and tanks. Good human artists and engineers, bad Terminator from the future robot warriors.
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