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  • Writer's pictureDean Anthony Gratton

Artificial Intelligence: The Day the Earth Stood Still

Max Frisch said, “The machine has no feelings, it feels no fear and no hope... it operates according to the pure logic of probability. For this reason, I assert that the robot perceives more accurately than man.”


The Notion of Robots

Our fascination with machinery, automation and robotics has been firmly cemented in humankind’s history. Leonardo’s ‘mechanical knight’ or ‘robot,’ as it is described today, for example, was speculated to be built by Leonardo da Vinci sometime during the 15th Century and was created, consequently, through da Vinci’s obsession with human anatomy. He would dissect corpses to understand more about how the body worked and he was especially captivated as to how muscles would move bones. He later proposed that similar structures could also be used in a machine and, as such, da Vinci constructed his mechanical knight, which comprised a series of pulleys and gears that enabled his robot to sit, walk and move other parts of its mechanical anatomy. He apparently used his knight primarily for entertainment purposes. We observe through history a lengthy story of many human endeavors for arts, sculpture, philosophy, literature, and architecture. Leonardo da Vinci’s mechanical knight offers us a unique insight into early inventors’ mindsets and their ingenious designs which would aid humankind at some point.


I must additionally acknowledge the marvel provided by science fiction writers; most notably the word ‘robot,’ which was penned by Karel Capek from his 1922 play “Rossum's Universal Robots” and later, by Isaac Asimov, who introduced us to the word ‘robotics’ in the 1940s to describe how roboticists across the arts and sciences were engaged.


The Mundane & the Unpleasant

Remarkably, Asimov and Capek seemed to sit at opposite ends of the good and bad scale in terms of the consequences of introducing a robot or humanoid into society. Capek noted that any robot brought into human society would ultimately become nefarious and would surely take over the world, whereas Asimov believed that he could instill a sense of goodness into robots through their circuitry (akin to a programmable machine). Anyway, whilst we do gratefully acknowledge these original writers, we must also extend our applause to other storytellers, including the artists of cinematography. Early 20th century movies such as “Metropolis” (1927), “The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and “Forbidden Planet” (1956) and later films to include “The Terminator” (1984), “Bicentennial Man” (1999), “A Space Odyssey” (2001), “I, Robot” (2004), Superintelligence (2020) and, more recently, M3GAN (2022), T.I.M (2023) and The Creator (2023) have all contributed to a dichotomous blend of wonder and the macabre, oddly echoing both Capek and Asimov’s beliefs, which have ignited a real sense of fear around the possibility that, one day, robots or humanoids could perhaps become integral and essential to supporting human society and our future well-being. However, let us remain positive and side with Asimov for now—after all, this will be for the better for humankind, right? Although, I do have to ask myself, what is it about these science fiction writers, do they know something about our future that we don’t?


Anyway, it was not until the mid-20th Century when we started to witness a significant transition, where science fiction became a tangible reality. In 1954, George Devol considered the workforce activity within the factory and, as such, turned to technology, to research how the development of a robot could assist and alleviate the human workforce from mundane, heavy, and unpleasant tasks across an assembly plant. Devol later collaborated with Joseph Engelberger and together they formed a company to embark upon a feasibility across numerous automotive plants, as well as other unique manufacturing processes. They then sought to architect a prototype robot, which soon emerged in 1959. And yet, with the submission of several patents thereafter, it was not until 1961 that their prototype was installed in an automotive plant.


Opposing Modern Technology

Alas, unknown to Devol and Engelberger, despite their initial considered need for robotics in the manufacturing and production process, today the technology’s use has become both a pivotal standpoint and an incredibly controversial use case, since nowadays we question the ‘future of work’ ideology, the ‘value add’ and the need for humans in the production and manufacturing lifecycle. Similarly, Capek and Asimov were both abundantly aware of the demeaning jobs that were only available to certain unskilled laborers at that time and, as such, recognized that the use and need of robots (or technology) would benefit the workforce and human society overall. With the continued uptake and advancement of technology we have become incredibly efficient—manufacturing and production of everyday products has become more reliable as a consequence and it is what we have come to expect, as consumers in our use of our everyday products, as well as our increasing mindfulness of its energy use and our ever-growing concern regarding what kind of carbon footprint we leave.

Could we really live without technology? It has largely stood by us, and we too have grown and adapted with its use.

We continue to use and embrace technology to streamline costs for both business and consumers, as well as the continued efficacy for the production and manufacturing lifecycle and, it is the unfortunate inevitably that there are some workforce casualties, that is, “technological unemployment” for many working in the automation, production, and manufacturing industries. Short-term jobs have been lost because of technology, but like those formerly in the midst of an emerging industrial and technological growth and revolution, today we too must evolve, adapt and change through self-improvement or any other relevant recourse. Luddism or neo-Luddism, today, is an ideology that opposes modern technology, but technology will evolve whether you’re against it or not, and it has become an unquestionable realization that accompanies the ‘human condition’. Whilst we might ponder and debate such a broad subject, technology has largely stood by humans and we too have grown and adapted with its use; more so, could we really do without it? In fact, the Luddite fallacy dismisses the notion that with new technology there will be higher unemployment and, instead, with this technological evolution, there will be change in both the dynamics and composition of future employment, whilst increasing job opportunities for the better across the economy.


Until next time…

Nevertheless, on a more somber note, with technology and our superior efficiency, which has become oh-so surgically capable across the manufacturing and production process from white goods to the supply of toys and gadgets; to the process and production of food and its supply, we have perhaps become nonchalant and have taken many things for granted. Of course, we sustain our supply chains across our nation and provide goods and services to many other countries—we have become incredibly good at what we do with the support of technology. You can see, in nature animals only hunt and kill to feed themselves and their siblings when they are hungry; whereas we (us humans) have automated the slaughter of animals for mass consumption because we have mastered the process of slaughtering them through automated machines—perhaps this reflects our collective ‘blind eye,’ when a machine kills the animal and, on this occasion, ignorance is sadly bliss.


It’s an horrific realization of our dreadful achievement through the use of technology and its destructiveness has perhaps marred the good that can be garnered from its effective use and application. In a mantra, of ‘technology for good’ it becomes an ongoing mission that we are striving to embrace, and we will be faced with numerous challenges as we move forward to ensure that technology does have a place within human society, along with the human condition, as we all collectively reach for our smartphones to confirm.


So, this is where a “mindful technology for good” Dr G signs off.

 

An abridged version of a chapter from "Playing God with Artificial Intelligence."

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a technology influencer, analyst & futurist 

I dispel the rumours, gossip and hype surrounding new technology

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