I spend a fair amount of time in coffee shops (big surprise; “coffee” is in the name of this blog). I never order the fancy stuff, but at least once a day I see a barista lay a mug on the counter with a heart foamed into the top of the drink. It’s an essential barista love.
Would it mean as much if a robot barista did the same? Does a mathematically perfect foam heart in a drink designed to your exact preferred temperature and chemical composition have the same value? I wonder.
I don’t actually think the robot barista is going to become normalized. Personal interaction with humans is an essential component of the coffee shop. But the disappearing world of human work is on a lot of minds lately. Dire predictions about the labor-gutting robot revolution appear in blogs, news, and books on the daily.
I’ve done a lot of technical writing for world history books over the years, which requires reading the entire history of the human experience from beginning to end, over and over again. Each time I reach the Luddites, those machine-smashing idealists who fought the industrial revolution, I wonder if we will produce our own group of robot-smashing malcontents.
I’m certainly not the only one. This interesting review of Luddite history recently appeared in a Smithsonian Magazine. The author revisited the group with an eye toward our own coming robot/AI revolution.
It’s tough to know how to judge the Luddites. Were they freedom fighters we should respect, hopeless idealists we should pity, or ruthless terrorists we should abhor? Or all of the above? They certainly did some nasty things as the movement progressed, including murder, but the factory owners and law enforcement were equally brutal in response. Steady public hangings ultimately snuffed the movement out.
Once AI really starts to demolish human work in a very public way—say, the disappearance of all trucking/transportation jobs—we may get something similar.
But there are some key differences about our present that will preclude formation of a new Luddite group that can physically smash machines.
The original Luddites were just regular people, but they were people that worked in –or had access to—the factories that stripped away their old lives. And the machines were quite easy to break—Luddites mostly just used big sledgehammers.
This won’t be possible with the new AI. For one, it won’t need the assistance of the people it replaces to do the work, which means it will be less physically accessible to the people who want to bring it down. Two—as a means of attack, sledgehammers just aren’t going to cut it.
That’s not to say some won’t try to firebomb the automated big rigs that drive across the country on their own; only that the big rigs might just fire back.
Movies like to show humans working side by side with humanoid robots in offices or factories—it’s better for drama, putting workers shoulder with the things replacing them. It’s hard to imagine it playing out that way in reality. The expectation of unrest will likely mean entirely self-contained factories—with very thick walls and doors—that have little or no human involvement at all.
That leaves hackers. They’ve already proven quite capable of causing problems. They might even create their own AI to attack corporate AI, a kind of high-irony Luddite army.
Another difference is anonymity. The original Luddites thrived on it. They disguised their faces, attacked, and melted back into the countryside. That’s not possible anymore for in-person physical attacks. Again, that leaves only hackers, who are mostly able to attack and stay hidden.
So… outside of an outright destructive war against the machines, what nonviolent modes of resistance will society develop? Will it be a simple as slapping a “Made by Humans” sticker on every product that qualifies?
Will YOU shop human?
And where will the line be? What products will deserve the “made by humans” sticker? Most anything mass-produced these days is mostly made by machines—poured, stamped, welded, assembled, etc. Humans get in there a little, inspecting, fixing jams, ensuring quality control… but don’t do the majority of the labor.
Perhaps the stickers will need to be more specific. “This product was made in a factory that employs 10% human labor.”
I’m not a violent person, so if I find myself faced with a superior AI being, I’m going the passive-aggressive route. If his name is Bob, I’ll constantly refer to him as “Bib.” And when he reminds me that it’s Bob, I’ll say “Oh right, I’ll remember next time. Thanks, Bib.”
If a synthetic makes my lunch at a restaurant, I’ll sneak a dead fly into the sandwich and complain loudly that a HUMAN would have caught this because only a HUMAN could understand that dead flies are gross.
If a robot gives me a cappuccino with a heart foamed into it, I’ll mumble that I wanted a shamrock shape instead. And if it offers to make another one, I’ll say “TOO LATE, BIB!” and hurl it to the ground.
I might get a soul patch and a floppy beret, too. Luddites have to have style.
So what do you think? Is your job safe? Better start your Etsy shop of real, human hand-made arts and crafts today 🙂