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It’s Not About the Robots

Talking to Robots: Tales from our Human-Robot Futures, by David Ewing Duncan, Dutton, 320 pages, July 2019

The scientists of the future have a message for the people of the present: “As it turns out, it really isn’t about the robots.” This message is actually the answer to a question that we—those of us living in the Early Robot Era (ERE)—propelled forward through time in one of the imagined futures in David Ewing Duncan’s new book, Talking to Robots: Tales from Our Human-Robot Futures. The question from present-day humanity is this: “Can you tell us which will be more important in the future: humans or robots?”

It might seem like a silly question. But the fact that Duncan felt compelled to ask and answer it reveals an anxiety that many are battling today. More than 70 percent of Americans are worried about machines taking people’s jobs.

These anxieties are not unfounded. Duncan refers to the now famous (or infamous) 2013 University of Oxford study, which found that 47 percent of jobs in the UK were likely to be replaced by automation by the year 2035. With truck drivers, bank tellers, and even journalists susceptible, it’s not surprising that people in our day are wondering who the future will belong to—humans or robots?

In each of Robots’ 24 chapters, Duncan, the bestselling author of nine books, including Calendar andExperimental Man, focuses on a particular piece of tech, beginning with a description of what life is like in an imagined future due to the ubiquity of that technology. He then pauses the fictional narrative to interview a real-life roboticist, scientist, or philosopher from today who explains how the future might get to that point. He concludes each chapter by returning to the fictional narrative and explaining how people in the future either reject or embrace the technology in question, as well as the consequences and lessons learned. 

In this way, the book is a hybrid of sorts, an ingenious blend of fiction and non-fiction, future and present, a story about serious issues told with disarming humor. In order to accomplish all this, Duncan uses a made-up tense, which he dubs the “near-future present.” This makes the reader feel as if he is in the future with the narrator learning about the distant past (our present).

For example, in the chapter titled “Hello, Robot Driver,” Duncan imagines just how grisly things could get in the future if robots were to replace human drivers. “Former truckers replaced by driverless rigs,” writes Duncan, “gathered on the edges of every major city in makeshift camps called ‘Big Rig-opolises,’ soon after most of them lost their homes to foreclosure bots.” The former drivers don’t give up without a fight though. They block critical intersections all over the planet, snarling traffic.

Duncan’s forecast of how truck drivers might respond to an onslaught of driverless vehicles and mass unemployment is imaginative and playful. He uses humor here to make these serious discussions more palatable.

His description of how the tech industry responds to the truck drivers is similarly light, though telling: “Back in Silicon Valley, the engineers and entrepreneurs who invented self-driving cars…retreated to heavily fortified glam camps just off Skyline Drive. The humans drank lovely Pinot Noir…while trying to comprehend why all these former drivers hated them so much.”

By casting Silicon Valley and its ilk as out of touch with reality, Duncan reveals that he feels a certain level of angst over tech luminaries and the greed that drives them. At one point, the narrator of the story rhetorically asks, “One wonders if these tech titans felt a tad bit guilty about getting so insanely rich off robots taking jobs from people.”

In the chapter titled “The %[email protected]! Robot That Swiped My Job,” Duncan turns the tables on Silicon Valley’s CEOs, who in the future are replaced by the very algorithms they helped create. He interviews Sunny Bates, a New York City-based “superstar head-huntress.” In the interview, Duncan and Bates get philosophical as they discuss what has led to the cultural malaise of our day. “These machines were supposed to save us time,” notes Bates, “so that we wouldn’t have to work so hard, and we would have more time to spend with each other.” Instead, as Bates argues, “[w]e use the extra time to spend more time with our machines.”  

This preference for machines is one factor that has led to the fracturing of community, one of the defining challenges of our day, as evidenced in the loneliness epidemic and opioid crisis. This fracturing will only be compounded if automation robs too many people of their jobs too quickly. Further in their discussion, Bates comments on what work gives us, including community, peer recognition, and a sense of value. If automation takes these things away, the challenges we face today will seem insignificant.

While up until this point it might seem as though Duncan is a tech skeptic, it’s worth noting that overall he isn’t. He doesn’t swear allegiance to the tech gods, but he does believe there’s a place for cutting-edge technology going forward. He cites Paul Daugherty’s and James Wilson’s book Human + Machine:  Reimagining Work in the Age of AI: “Indeed, when humans and machines are allowed to do what each does best…the result is a virtuous cycle of enhanced work that leads to productivity boosts, increased worker satisfaction, and greater innovation.” 

Back in “Hello, Robot Driver,” Duncan appeals to this “Humans + Machines” model to resolve the conflict between the tech titans and unemployed truck drivers. Eventually a group of WAMBS (Women Against Men Being Stupid) make a shocking proposal: “‘Just say no,’ said the WAMBS, meaning ‘no’ to driverless cars taking millions of people’s jobs.” 

Instead the WAMBS suggest taking a cue from the airline sector. Though airlines largely fly themselves, there is no serious discussion about getting rid of pilots. Why couldn’t it be the same for the trucking industry?

Via the fictional WAMBS, Duncan takes the idea of “Humans + Machines” one step further and articulates a bold tech ethic “where we think of people first, or at least in equal measure to creating amazing new tech and to making money.” With the threat of automation looming large, such a people-first approach to innovation will be crucial in order to prevent the further erosion of our already weakened communities.

While Robots articulates this message well, the book is not without its faults. The chapter titled “Sex (Intimacy) Bot” attempts to highlight the importance of real relationships, but only succeeds at being graphic and awkward. Other chapters, while meant as comic relief, distract from the important claims the book is trying to get across, and some are set so far in the future as to lack relevance.

Duncan also would have done well to spend more time imagining what resistance to technology might look like. Change on the scale he forecasts will not be without its detractors. Every revolution has some who resist it and form subcultures or countercultures.

Duncan also misses this in the chapter titled “Homo Digitalis/Homo Syntheticis,” which explores how all of humanity is forced to make “The Choice,” a decision to either download their memories into a robot in order to live forever digitally, or to keep one’s human body but alter one’s genetic and neural codes in order to improve them.

Unfortunately, all this is overly technical and failed to deliver a reasonable prediction of what resisting the commingling of the human with the robotic might look like. To think that people of all creeds would be willing to subject themselves to such a choice is naive. Duncan could have used his creative style to describe a vibrant, fully human countercultural movement where people’s choices to remain as they were created is a rebellious act that costs them decades of life but allows for authentic community and relationships.

Despite the book’s few weak points, however, it’s an overall success. Underneath all the layers of humor, interviews, and descriptions of cutting-edge tech lies an existential quest to identify and affirm what it means to be human. Duncan, whatever his politics may be, offers a balanced look into numerous potential human-robot futures. He reminds us that we don’t have to build every robot and AI system just because it is cool and we don’t have to accept automation as a job-killing inevitability. Talking to Robots’ message is the same as the one from the scientists of the future: that it really isn’t about the robots. It’s about us and how we can create a future that puts people first.

John Thomas is a freelance writer. His writing has appeared at Mere Orthodoxy, Christianity Today, and Desiring God. He writes regularly at medium.com/soli-deo-gloria.

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