Flying Robot Butlers & The Fossil Record


Sooner or later everyone sits down to a banquet of consequencesRobert Louis Stevenson

Remember when all those people around you were suffering from a fever of 38 °C, chills, fatigue, bluish skin colouration, sore throat, hoarseness, cough, headache, difficulty swallowing, painful swallowing, difficulty breathing, rapid breathing, foul-smelling blood-stained nasal discharge and lymphadenopathy, cardiac arrhythmias, myocarditis, and cranial and peripheral nerve palsies?

No? Me either.

These are the symptoms of the upper respiratory tract illness caused by Corynebacterium diphtheriae, better known simply as diphtheria, which was once a major cause of illness and death among children. The United States recorded 206,000 cases of diphtheria in 1921, resulting in 15,520 deaths. Diphtheria death rates range from about 20% for those under the age of five and over the age of 40, to 5-10% for those aged 5-40 years. Diphtheria was the third leading cause of death in children in England and Wales in the 1930s. Of course, widespread vaccination programmes have now reduced this to a handful of cases in the developed world and, according to one source, “immunization can be credited with saving approximately 9 million lives a year worldwide. A further 16 million deaths a year could be prevented if effective vaccines were deployed against all potentially vaccine-preventable diseases.”

The prescription seems clear. And yet sceptics in large and vocal numbers remain. And the more people in a population who are unvaccinated, the more the whole population remain at risk. Anti-vaccination thinking denies a causal connection between vaccines and the eradication or significant reduction of diseases. There is a tendency towards confirmation bias on both sides of the debate. It is a debate that is particularly emotive because it’s literally life or death at stake.

Of course, debates about the changing nature of work are not played at such high stakes but they are similarly emotive. We spend the greater part of our waking hours at work and the inexorable advance of technology is increasingly blurring the lines between work and life. I recognise that my own confirmation bias leads me to a prescription that is based not on work/life balance or work/life integration, but on less work. I vacillate because it feels like we’re balanced on a knife edge. Technology might yet be an enabler for efficiency or less work in our lives but automation and robotics may also make many of us redundant. I’ve yet to hear any compelling thesis on what all these newly free human beings will do without work or what structures might be needed to support them. Robotics is supposed to provide people with more leisure time. A recent study by the Office for National Statistics here in the UK found that third on the list of leisure activities enjoyed by the people of the United Kingdom is shopping. Google, whose people are at the forefront of robotic innovation, via their purchase of Boston Dynamics, derive their revenue primarily by delivering relevant, cost-effective online advertising. Keeping us shopping. Robots replace humans. Humans have no jobs. No jobs means no money. No money means no shopping. No shopping means no advertisers. No advertisers means no Google. No Google means no robots. No robots means no work gets done. No more work means no more robots. Wasteland.

All of this stuff coming out of Mountain View and its imitators looks cool. It looks too funky and fresh to be worrisome. But beneath the futuristic shell it also seems to stem from the similar insidious short-termism that brought us collateralized debt obligations. Maybe I’m being unnecessarily pessimistic. Maybe I’ve watched Jurassic Park one too many times…

John Hammond: I don’t think you’re giving us our due credit. Our scientists have done things which nobody’s ever done before…

Dr. Ian Malcolm: Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.

As something of a dinosaur, I won’t be around when we hold the retrospective but I’d feel more comfortable with a legacy founded on a rational examination and appreciation of all potential consequences. A fossil record that doesn’t show how we built our own planet-killing asteroid.

Postscript: I am grateful to the three people who provided the words around which this post is formed. They are: Tim Scott (Vacillate), Neil Usher (Diphtheria) and Will Easton (Retrospective)

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