The robots are coming!
But will they free or enslave us?
Our future hinges on whether
we create R2-D2
s or C-3POs.

For as long as humans have dreamt of loafing, we have hoped — and feared — that robots could relieve some of the workload. (Aristotle predicted that automatons would one day put an end to slavery. Maaaaaybe — or they might enslave us!)

Robots have been pervasive for generations, but almost entirely in the hypothetical sense. Our childhoods were packed with the idea of robots — in our movies, our cartoons, our toys, our music, our police force, and our cereal.

Like a Spielbergian cliche, I grew up in rural America dreaming of a robot future. The movies, books, and television of my youth were vividly precise about that future, with only two possible outcomes:

A) Robotics will deliver an economic paradise where butler droids serve every desire, need, and whimsy.

B) Robotics will destroy human civilization.

So far, no robot has served me a tray of canapés with witty banter. A bot has served me crippling defeat in computer chess, but that trend does not seem to portend a robot insurrection.

The most influential android in my life might be the one that caused reckless dancing at a junior high dance. This guy, Mr. Roboto:

“Mr. Roboto,” Styx
Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto. Domo. Domo.
Thank you very much, Mr. Roboto

In its own electro-dippy way, that song perfectly depicted the contrasting characterizations of our robot future. On one hand, Mr. Roboto foretold a utopia devoid of dreary labor:

For doing the jobs that nobody wants to
And thank you very much, Mr. Roboto
For helping me escape just when I needed to

But on the other, Mr. Roboto envisioned a dystopian nightmare ruled by diabolical technology:

The problem’s plain to see: too much technology.
Machines to save our lives. Machines dehumanize.

Styx — and I say this with immense surprise — perfectly hypothesized the predicament of mechanization: Robots will be either resourceful R2-D2s or despotic C-3POs.

Whooooa, we’re getting ahead of ourselves….

Kilroy! Kilroy! Kilroy!

Listen too closely, and all you will hear in Mr. Roboto is an icky clash of class anxiety and race baiting. (Japanophobia was a well-worn trope in the ’80s.) Such is the dubious role that robots were assigned for generations: Awkward metaphors for human folly.

But all that is changing, right now, in real time. Robots are no longer metaphors for things — they are the things.

Our daily news streams are now packed with stories about automated androids, dispassionate drones, and diabolical bots. To get a sense of how dominant the narrative of a robotized economy has become, I offer a small collection of news headlines:

Just One Robot-Related Story from
Every Month Over the Past Year

  • December 2013: Amazon announces a drone delivery program called Amazon Prime Air in a 60 Minutes segment, causing Twitter to become unreadable for the next 24 hours.
  • January 2014: Her, a movie in which an oafish writer (‎Joaquin Phoenix) falls for a disembodied robot voice in the cloud (Scarlett Johansson), receives an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and later wins Best Original Screenplay.
  • February 2014: Google finalizes its purchase of a robotic thermostat for $3.2 billion — the seventh robotics company it has purchased in the past six months.
  • March 2014: In the finale to FOX’s Almost Human, a cyborg cop gifts his humanoid partner a robotic leg.
  • April 2014: Google unveils its driverless car project with detailed reports in The Atlantic and the New York Times. (And let’s wedge one more in: The Singularity hits the cineplex with Transcendence, starring Johnny Depp as a maniacal Ray Kurzweil, basically.)
  • May 2014: As the U.S. military drone program reaches its fifth anniversary (with 2,400 deaths), another drone program takes shape as major media organizations unite in their support for unrestricted drone use as a tool for reporting.
  • June 2014: In widely read and debated missives, Marc Andreessen tweetstorms our inevitable robot future.
  • July 2014: Elon Musk espouses a theory that humans are merely the creation of a “digital superintelligence” from the future, concluding that robots might become “more dangerous than nukes.”
  • August 2014: Pew Research Center publishes AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs, which predicts intelligent digital agents will permeate the workforce by 2025. As if it received an advance copy, Google announces a drone delivery system, Project Wing.
  • September 2014: Hollywood gets a drone exemption and this video goes viral:
If you are not among the 2.7 million who has already Humans Need Not Apply, I suggest clicking that tempting play-button triangle. It’s scarier than Terminator 2, but instead of superintelligent liquid metal from the future, it’s set in the present — the scary now.

Threepio & Artoo

Oops! Sorry!

You obviously came here for that Star Wars hook promised in the intro, but like an exacting Obi-Wan, I made you sit through some historical lightsaber training. But here it is, finally, The Force:

R2-D2 excels in areas where humans are deficient: deep computation, endurance in extreme conditions, and selfless consciousness. R2-D2 is a computer that compensates for human deficiencies — it shines where humans fail.

C-3PO is the personification of the selfish human — cloying, rules-bound, and despotic. (Don’t forget, C-3PO let Ewoks worship him!) C-3PO is a factotum for human vanity — it engenders the worst human characteristics.

Here is a chart, which I fear may be the most controversial thing I have ever created:

It’s simple:

R2-D2 aspires to be a great computer.
C-3PO aspires to be a mediocre human.
We need great computers, not mediocre humans.

The Robot Economy

Why would this matter?

It matters because we are entering that moment in human history when the robot fantasy from our childhood is becoming a reality. Robots will soon be performing incredible tasks — flying planes, delivering Christmas presents, operating on Uncle Charlie’s gallbladder.

How we build those robots, especially how they interact with humans, is of utmost importance.

Economists — a historically unflappable group — are totally freaked out by robots, with many predicting an economic catastrophe in the coming decades. Glance around the internet and you find serious talk of the end of labor and the demise of the middle class. But other economists — coagulating along unpredictable political lines — argue that robotics could elicit a new collaborative global commons. The latter group has a surprising ally: Karl Marx.

In an obscure document called “The Fragment on Machines,” Marx argued that automation would reduce the cost of goods to near zero, driving down profits and ultimately unleashing creative time for humans to develop new social and collective capital. As he wrote:

[Automation] reduces human labour, expenditure of energy, to a minimum. This will redound to the benefit of emancipated labor, and is the condition of its emancipation.

Emancipation!

I don’t cite Marx to be coy. Economists are roiled in debates about the effects of mechanization, but it feels like the public conversation has shifted. Only a few years ago, in the midst of the passage of Obamacare, the dominant economic conversation in America was about long-term funding of entitlement programs. (Even Paul Krugman was suggesting that fiscal austerity might be necessary in the future.) But now phrases like “universal living wage” and “post-scarcity economics” are serious parts of the conversation.

What changed?

Think back a couple years — try to imagine a friend predicting that driverless cars would be available by, say, 2025. It would have been an iffy bet. But now that prediction seems even odds, maybe better. Elon Musk claims that Tesla cars will be “90 percent self-driving” next year.

The robots are coming.

Leaping in the Uncanny Valley

Picking between R2-D2 and C-3PO is not merely a choice in technology, like preferring Safari over Chrome. Choosing our computer interface is determining an economic fate.

What’s so wrong with picking C-3PO?

Most of the movies from our childhoods will make the point, but try the recent trailer for Automata:

Automata (2014)

Stop that, you stupid human! Stop making C-3POs!

Computers are wondrous inventions — an amazing hybridization of art and science, hardware and software, engineering and design. Yet we insist on contaminating that miracle by trying to make computers human. Humans are unreliable, erratic, imperfect globs of organic matter — a transitional state in evolution, at best. Why force computers to emulate our folly?

History has shown that when we design computers to be “more human,” we fail. Three of the more obvious examples:

  • Clippy was a disaster for Microsoft.
  • Siri is the most mocked feature of the iPhone.
  • Autotune nearly imploded the music industry.

Even misguided design trends like skeuomorphism, which attempts to incorporate the real world into interfaces, seems indebted a C-3PO worldview. Skeuomorphism is a crutch, a fallback — it’s what designers do when the appropriate time has not been devoted to a creating an elegant device-centric interface. (“Just make the reading app look like a book,” you can hear the hurried product designer blurt.)

So I say: Stop it! Stop anthropomorphizing robots. Stop making C-3POs— those robot interfaces that want to be human. Instead, let’s design robots that excel at being robots — those R2-D2s that compensate for human deficiencies.

Robotic cars? Yes, please keep working on those, because humans suck hard at driving. (As everyone knows, R2-D2 was the perfect co-pilot for the X-wing Starfighter.)

Turing tests? No, please stop those academic exercises in vanity. Instead of trying to fake human intelligence, let’s get to Mars. (Valles Marineris, not Uncanny Valley!)

And can we cease putting human faces on robots? Please, no more androids named Lucy or Samantha or Ada. (The penchant for male engineers to project their Ids onto female robot interfaces should be enough to recognize the problem.)

We don’t need more humans. We need better computers. We must decide between a world ruled by Threepios or enhanced by Artoos.

Choose wisely, young Jedi.

Rex Sorgatz is a cylon who inhabits @fimoculous.