Should Robots Be A Major Political Issue in 2016

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, July 12, 2015

We need to decide if we really want robots. Why are we working so diligently to build our own replacements? We need to decide before its too late.


As Democrats and Republicans declare themselves candidates for president in 2016, they each scope out issues they hope will define their electability. Donald Trump has gotten massive free PR by making very ugly statements about immigration. Bernie Sanders is staking claims around fair income and wealth inequality. None of the candidates have focused what I consider the defining issue for the next president—climate change. However, I’m also discovering a growing number of reports about automation, robots and artificial intelligence to make me wonder if robots shouldn’t be second to climate change on the 2016 party platforms.

Climate change, automation and wealth inequality are all interrelated. Illegal immigration is a minor issue in comparison. In fact, most of what the current crop of candidates focus on are old-moldy issues that are far from vital to our country. The 2016 election will define our focus until 2020, or even 2024. We’re well into the 21st century, so it’s past time to forgot about 20th century issues.

If you doubt me, read “A World Without Work” from the latest issue of Atlantic Monthly. Derek Thompson does a precise job of stating his case, so I won’t repeat it. Let’s just say, between automation and wealth inequality, there’s going to be a lot of people without jobs, and the middle class will continue to shrink at an even faster rate. Bernie Sanders political sniffer is following the right trail that will impact the most voters. Reporters should trail Sanders and not go panting after Trump. Follow smart people, not fools.

Another way to grasp the impact of the robot revolution is sign up for and follow the topic robotsmanufacturing automation, machine learning, natural language processing and artificial intelligence. Over a period of time you’ll get my point. Our society is racing to create intelligent machines. I’m all for it, but I’m a science fiction geek. If we don’t want to make ourselves into Neanderthals, we should think seriously about evolving homo roboticus. Being #2 in the IQ rankings will suck. But then if we embrace plutocracy and xenophobia, maybe we deserve to be replaced by AI machines.

If all of this is too much trouble, and you just want learn through the emotional catharsis of fiction, watch the new TV show, Humans on AMC. The show covers all the major robot issues, and sometimes in subtle ways. So spend some time thinking about the individual scenes in this show. Humans is very creative. Then start flipping the channels and pay attention to how often robots and AI come up in other shows. It’s like all the water is rushing away from the shorelines and we need to worry about when the tsunami will hit us.


6 thoughts on “Should Robots Be A Major Political Issue in 2016”

  1. “Illegal immigration is a minor issue in comparison.”

    Well… not if you happen to be someone who used to make a decent living in meat packing, construction, janitorial work, etc, etc. The dragon’s teeth sown back in the 1940’s and 1970’s have sprung up with a vengeance and we’ve been busily exporting jobs AND importing workers for several decades now, burning the candle at both ends. Imagine how bad we can make things with the help of robotic assistants! Of course if they all look like Gemma Chan, I welcome our new robotic replacements!

    There are possible solutions. I personally think we need both a guaranteed basic income and guaranteed paid employment at a decent wage. In order to avoid the sort of upwards redistribution that’s currently in place, we would also need to consider factors like Henry George’s analysis of increased productivity linked to increased desperation, and the actual functions of debt and money as explained by Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) We could have a society that’s much less fearful and insecure than it is now.

    Unfortunately, here in the U.S. we’re beset by irony. Our computerized polling places make us one of the world leaders in hackable voting procedures, unlike those backwards countries which still rely on paper ballots and hand counts. (Speaking of appropriate technology, the *blankety* electric window on my *blankety* car is broken AGAIN — but just try to find a car with manual cranks!) Everyone’s afraid to rock the boat in spite of the fact that the homeostatic nature of our 18th-Century political system almost insures that nothing will change very much. We need radical solutions, but our system was designed to prevent that — it’s working as intended, to suit those who are pretty happy with the status quo. For instance, contrary to current messaging, we haven’t fixed the U.S.’s healthcare problems, nor are we moving in that direction. Instead we’ve put in place something that will act as an institutional firewall against fundamental reform. Business as usual.

    Have you seen “Tomorrowland”? It’s a flawed movie, but as a card-carrying Boomer SF fan I literally got tears in my eyes during certain retro-future scenes. Not from the literal rocketships and flying cars, but from thinking aboaut the contrast between the optimism I grew up with and our current prospects. The movie concentrates on individual attitudes, but our problems are largely systemic. Better social technology might save us, but I don’t think hardware is going to do the job. As William Gibson is supposed to have said, “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.” If one already has private jets, helicopters and secluded estates, who needs jetpacks?

    1. If you compare illegal immigration against the collapse of civilization or the middle class, it doesn’t seem as important to me.

      I avoid Tomorrowland because of the bad reviews. But after your comment I’ll have to go see it if it’s still around, or get it on DVD.

      I don’t know why we can’t make a full-proof electronic voting system out of smartphones. The key to avoiding voting fraud is validating identity and not allowing duplicate votes. If a phone number, and it’s unique hardware and networking addresses can’t be linked to a voice print for a near full proof system, then I can’t believe any other system could do better.

  2. The Atlantic article mentioned Peter Frase, author of the forthcoming book “Four Futures”. Don’t know if you ever saw his original article, but it’s worthwhile —

    About electronically assisted voting: actually, if memory serves, much of the vote tampering that seems to have gone on during the 2000 and 2004 elections involved possible alteration of vote totals AFTER the votes were cast, either by remote hacking or direct reprogramming of the tabulation machines. It’s unbelievable that the issue wasn’t more of a scandal at the time (well, I wish it were unbelievable anyway). I haven’t read her book, but Bev Harris was a notable figure in what investigation did take place. Search for “Black Box Voting” and/or “Bev Harris”.

    Lots of people still don’t use smartphones. I’m one of them. I often bitch that analog methods for getting things done have decayed or been eliminated because people who have the power to decide assume that everyone is like them and their friends. Same class of problem encountered in much economic/political decision making.

    “Tomorrowland” is worth seeing, but you’ll almost certainly find it frustrating in that “it could have been so much better” way. I avoided trailers and reviews, but when I heard that Damon Lindelof was involved I lowered my expectations considerably.

    1. Went and read “Four Futures” – quite interesting. Never seen science fiction put to such intellectual ends. I hope you have read This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein. It’s the best case I’ve seen yet against capitalism. Capitalism is too successful–we need to modify it. What we need is a combination of Capitalism-Socialism-Egalitarianism-Environmentalism. This could be achieved without altering the existing system too much. We up the minimum standards of living, tax the excessively wealthy, and create laws that protect the individual and the environment.

      A voting machine with validated identity recognition could be made out of a flip phone.

      1. I’ve been a fan of Naomi Klein for a long time.

        Agree about “Four Futures”. But there’s been plenty of outright fiction in the same vein (Edward Bellamy, anyone?)

        I’ve always felt a bit out of step with the majority — a lifetime of reading SF, history and anthropology has led me see “alternate realities” to the status quo as much more possible than in most people’s view. In many cases, all that is really required for major change is for enough people to change their minds.

        Generally I don’t believe there’s much chance of successfully addressing issues like climate change without first fixing some fundamental politics and economics. I don’t think that in most cases people who are struggling to make rent, groceries and medical bills are going to give a fig for what might happen to the climate ten or twenty years from now. A few kindly billionaires won’t save us. Even if you happen to think Elon Musk is a fine fellow, money has a logic of it’s own.

        I believe that civilized values and decision making are largely a function of security. One of the works that had a big impact on me in my youth was Colin Turnbull’s “The Mountain People” (1972), about the Ik people of Uganda .

        It’s a vivid illustration of how strongly deprivation can influence human behaviour. And what many people don’t grasp is that it isn’t necessary for one to be reduced to such absolute poverty in order to live in fear every day.

        1. Sorry PJ, this post got stuck in my system and I didn’t see it.

          I don’t think we will change. I think we have the technology and knowledge to solve the climate change problem but we won’t. Have you read “Collapsed by Jared Diamond?

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