Will robots replace humans?

Consider this. Nearly every large animal on this planet is stronger than us. Almost every predator has claws, or venom, or sharp teeth. But humans have two advantages that have enabled us to survive and thrive – a large brain, and hands that can pick up and manipulate objects. At the very dawn of pre-history we were busy making stone tools, turning animal skins into clothing, and decorating our own bodies with things that we’d made. We just can’t help it. We have to make things. Give any human a physical object and they will try to do something with it.

In the modern world, we are constantly surrounded by machines and inventions – from the clothes we wear, to the houses we live in, to the cars, trains and planes we travel around in, to the computers and other electronic devices we use for work and leisure. In this article, I want to consider this special relationship between humans and the machines we create. I want to look at where this relationship with our creations is heading.

There are a few animals that build machines to help them in their daily lives – birds build nests, bees build hives, etc – but humans are inextricably linked to their creations like no other creature. We have a uniquely symbiotic relationship with technology, and you could say that technology isn’t an add-on optional feature, but a core function of what it is to be human.

eship

The modern world is very technologically advanced and we are deeply dependent on the machines around us. There’s no doubting the direction the world is going, and it’s only a matter of time before robots do nearly all the manual jobs, and computers do a lot of the intellectual work for us. Where does that leave humans? Doomed to be replaced by the machines we create, or even become their slaves, like Stephen Hawking and others have warned?

I don’t think so. I think the future will  look very much like the past – humans and our machines in an ongoing effort to make the world a better place, more suited to our needs. We’re not in competition with our tools – we’re part of a team. And if the past is a guide to the future, we won’t be rendered obsolete by machines – we will entwine ourselves ever closer with our creations, until we merge into a seamless whole. The divide between man and machine is set to narrow and perhaps even disappear.

Just like tattoos, hair extensions and contact lenses, intelligent machines will become a part of us. Smartphones, smart watches and Google Glass point the way. As computers become more portable and more intelligent, we will want to integrate ever closer with them. After all, if we created an artificial super-intelligence, what would be better – to put it to work as our slave or to harness it to expand our own intellectual and creative powers?

If you think this won’t happen, or that we can avoid creating such machines, I urge you to think again. The history of mankind is a history of the machine. Machines aren’t something incidental or external to us. They lie at our very core.

But our creations aren’t something to be feared. They don’t make us less human, they make us more human.

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18 responses to “Will robots replace humans?

  1. Interesting take on humans and machines, and one I happen to agree with, despite the widespread fear that robots and artificial intelligence will make humanity obsolete and eventually they (robots with artificial intelligence) will find us flawed and useless and eliminate us.

    • Interestingly I just spent this evening watching the first Terminator movie with my kids. I asked them if they had any concerns about killer robots wiping out civilization – they thought that was daft.
      But the myth of humans sowing the seeds of their own destruction is an ancient one, and I plan to blog about this shortly.

  2. So we humans are making robots which can adapt to the environment, that we’re changing everyday, finding energy sources in far off planets or even inventing new energies that we cannot even imagine, or maybe they’ll just tap into the core of the earth & use that to fuel our needs. Sounds wonderful!

    • I believe that technology is the key to protecting the environment. Technology is rapidly becoming more energy efficient, and energy generation less dependent on fossil fuels. I’ll be blogging about this soon too!

  3. I was shaking my head, mostly disagreeing with you, thinking about all the people in the world who don’t have smartphones, thinking about how many places that don’t take indoor plumbing for granted, but then you got me: “The history of mankind is a history of the machine.” So even though it’s true that there are plenty of people who don’t have the access to the machines that you are talking about, yes, we can navigate the path of human history through machines. What an interesting thought. I do think we’ve already tapped into machines to expand creative and intellectual fluency, and I hope to see this trend to continue to grow. I recently finished reading “The Bone Clocks,” (I think you would enjoy this book) in which author David Mitchell gives one view of the future worth pondering. Personally, I would like to indulge in my opinion that as vistas of knowing (which machines facilitate, both by providing access and as well as freeing up time for) become more of the norm, it will be easier for people to work together towards making decisions that improve life.

    • Early civilizations were mapped out by the technologies they used – the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age. We could equally think of the Printing Age, the Steam Age, and the Computer Age.

      Worldwide cell phone penetration is far more advanced than most people realize. In developing countries, people who don’t have access to a computer use a phone to access the internet. Did you know that cell phone ownership is higher in Zimbabwe than in the United States, in percentage terms?
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_number_of_mobile_phones_in_use

      I’ll have to put The Bone Clocks on my reading list! I loved Cloud Atlas, although I don’t share David Mitchell’s pessimistic vision of the future.

      • It’s funny that you mention Zimbabwe..I live in rural NY, and up until about a year ago I was still using dial-up. When that no longer worked for even answering emails our only other option was, and is, expensive and limited satellite service. A friend of ours who has worked in Zimbabwe pointed out that their coverage was far superior to what we have in upstate NY. Not only is our internet access limited but here at home I can’t get a good cell phone signal either. All this keeps me aware of how internet access isn’t universally available. This is not to say that I am disagreeing with you about worldwide cell phone penetration. or about this being the Computer Age, but I do know that even here in NY not everyone is full connected.

        By the way, I’ve requested The End of Mr Y through the library system. I’m looking forward to it.

  4. Great piece – I especially love your closing thoughts. To be a human is to be a bearer of tools, for good or ill, and I never really thought of it that way – that the more we integrate with our tools, the more human we really become. So interesting!

  5. I already think of my computer as an external brain. And my phone contacts are an external database that used to be internal (i.e., I used to actually know my family’s phone numbers inside my head, but now I store it in my external database).

    • Einstein once said that Einstein plus a pencil is cleverer than Einstein. Computers boost our creative powers immensely.

      • I was thinking that computers boost our intellectual capacities immensely but at a cost — a loss in conscious control — as in I no longer know my mom’s phone number in my own head because it is kept externally on my phone. This would give me a kind of uneasy vertigo, except that your “Einstein’s pencil” anecdote helps restore my serenity. I.e., the pencil really was to Einstein what computers are to us — a kind of external locus for his thought that expanded his intellectual prowess far beyond what was possible before we humans could preserve our thoughts in writing. Thanks. I will use the phrase, “Einstein’s pencil,” at work tomorrow, although I may just use it randomly to sound smart.

  6. I find this to be a far more believable vision of the future than the nonsense Stephen Hawking was talking about. Hawking’s a smart man, but he’s no expert on computers or artificial intelligence.

  7. The Fury of a Patient Man
  8. Yes, you’re right. The future will probably look very much like the past.
    And yes you’re absolutely right about the relationship between man and his machines. It is the mode of production of a certain civillization that determines how advanced its individuals are.

  9. This is one of the most intelligent articles I have read about robots and humans. We are connected to our machines and robots are sure to be integrated into every aspect of our lives in the future. They will help us, not replace us.

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