The Robots Among Us

We are surrounded by robots.

They have not taken the form we somehow expected them to take. Oh, sure, there’s the Roomba–a vacuum cleaner that runs around your ankles like a cross between a remote control car and an annoying pet–and there are those lifelike looking experimental humanoid robots in Japan. Don’t have either. Not sure I want either. But there are still robots in my life. Most of them either had something to do with manufacturing what I own, or are software robots.

Software bots bring me my email and filter (or send) my spam. They constantly sample the temperature in my house and adjust the heating or cooling within a certain range, and they inject precise amounts of fuel into the combustion chambers in my car (or perhaps your furnace). They search for my cell signal. They run my power station. They try very hard to figure out my buying habits based on my browsing history, and then suggest which ads might be useful. They account for much of the volume of stock trading. Automated software system bots surround me. And you.

Physical robots–machine arms and devices. computer driven–manufacture many of our goods. We call these types of robots productivity enhancers, and lament the jobs they take even as they make our lives easier (if we can afford our easier lives without that job.) They take assembly lines an exponential step further and do things faster, safer, and better that mere humans. It makes our goods cheaper, yet somehow cheapens many of the final products. We know this, or why the ad campaign that promoted the benefits of, “turkey, not technology” ?

We have met the future, and it is odd.

For my part, while hardly a Luddite, I rebel in little ways. I cook my food from scratch whenever possible, and raise much of my own produce. I buy things made by craftsmen and artisans. I heat my home with wood. I dry my clothes on a line (except the towels – line drying does not do ‘fluffy.”) I watch the sun rise. I ponder the stars and spend time face-to-face with loved ones and friends. And I spend time enjoying silence or the purr of my cats, or small joys like cool water on a hot day. Because I fear that too much dependency on technology will cause me to lose much of  what makes me human.

Children of this age, this is why your parents urge you outside and away from your computer games. Because the bots are taking over our time and lives, ever so slowly, and all for our own good. Robots running the world? It’s not going to happen with some sort of mainframe computer in a central location: that’s a fantasy. It’s a distributed revolution, a cloud coup d’├ętat, an individual choice we all have to make on a daily basis. Especially as Americans, with our lamentable addiction to entertainment, we have to ask ourselves daily – are we drifting along on a sea of algorithms, fed, cosseted by, and marketed to by expert systems? Or are we fully alive, fully human, living in the present with our eyes open? 

On my deathbed, I rather doubt I will mourn the fact that I did not spend enough time with software.  I pray I will not mourn ignoring the living, for robots.