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August 20, 2017


(This post varies far afield from my usual discussion as an amateur economist of where economics intersects with government and policy; I here temporarily wear the mantle of amateur philosopher in speculating on where we as humans are headed with the invasion of our humanity by onrushing innovation and am motivated by a reading of one of Asimov’s many works.)

Asimov was born in the Soviet Union in 1920, when Lenin and his sidekick Stalin were in the throes of consolidation of Bolshevik power over the rest of Russia after the Russian Revolution in 1917. Lenin died four years later (1924) and Stalin then embarked on the murder of millions upon millions of Russians in order to establish his dictatorship and the communist Soviet State.

Asimov as a child got out of the country just in time and became a U.S. citizen at the age of only 8, in 1928, subsequently earning three degrees from Columbia University, including a doctorate in chemistry. He was one of America’s most prolific writers, publishing hundreds of books and articles ranging from physics, religion, genetics, literature, biochemistry etc., but became best known for his science fiction short stories and novels, including The Bicentennial Man and Other Stories, published in 1976.

I had the pleasure of reading his Bicentennial Man short story recently, have connected some of the innovative dots since then and have concluded that Asimov’s story of the robot turned human in that story is more about humans than robots. His protagonist, a robot named Andrew Martin, was a hybrid among robots and began to gain human attributes to a point where he had an operative human brain via surgery (by another robot), and thus, unlike his fellow robots, died – and on his 200th birthday (that is, when he was first put together). The story is about his interactions with the Martin family and the forces of popular resentment against robots and how he (he, she or it?) overcame them and knowingly chose to die as the cost of becoming human, a fair trade in his estimation.

The story is a walking endorsement of “right to die” views held by many these days, as in, who makes such choices, the individual who intelligently wishes to die or the greater society sold on the idea that human life should be preserved beyond reason contrary to the wishes of the individual who wishes to die to avoid further pain and despair or whatever and whose sanity is assured by two or more medical doctors? It was, of course, a robot who “died” in the story, but the principle of freedom to die is established in Asimov’s account of Andrew’s determination to die, even when he had the choice of continuing to live as a robot. The only difference is that Andrew knew when he became human with a brain that worked like those in humans that he would die like a human. Robots, after all, don’t die because they (in isolated context) never lived, a precondition to dying. Andrew valued becoming human so greatly that, unlike his fellow robots, he chose death. He, in other words, lived to die.

I am told that Silicon Valley is now teaching emotional intelligence to robots, which may impair the business of psychiatrists and clinical psychologists, but that’s not all. Automation is going far past factory and electronic applications to a point where robots are getting into the business of humanity, that is, with feelings and decision-making abilities in areas formerly and exclusively reserved to humans.

I have to wonder whether we humans are ready to accept and acclimate ourselves to a new social and economic and political order that will inevitably follow such a handover of power, not out of fear of a robot revolution or other civil commotion (since such proclivities can be programmed out of and I hope not into robots and other forms of automation), but out of fear of those who do the programming, including even robots armed with intelligence who may help with programming, as in, will Silicon Valley become our new Lenin or Stalin? Is regulation of innovation claimed to be in the interests of humanity stifling and anti-democratic? Should anyone and everyone have a license to discovery and patenting? Does the public good established by innovation supersede the loss of human power in providing such good? How do we go about balancing the effects of innovation with the interests of humanity, and who and for what purpose does the balancing?

As the reader can see, my imagination has been stirred up considerably by reading Asimov’s accounting of Andrew Martin’s experiences in a world dominated (so far) by humans. Perhaps my projections are beyond Asimov’s intent in writing this story, but I think such projections merely scratch the surface of what our society will look like in, say, 50 years, though I suppose amateur philosophers in their day wrote about the coming degradation of society with the advent of the steam engine and cotton gin.

I think, however, that this is a different and much broader surge in innovation than that of the Industrial Revolution and other such improvements in, for instance, farm machinery, which led to the rural exodus of labor to the cities, a continuing exodus. No one before, to my knowledge, ever tried to teach intelligence to a steam engine, emotional or otherwise and, if so, might well have been candidates for the funny farm if detected in the process. Perhaps in coming generations the issues of today such as wage inequality, greed, avarice, competition, capitalism as currently practiced, profiteering, wars and the like will have been subsumed into a new global society where automation will do the work of the world and humans will fairly and equitably share in the proceeds of such efforts. Perhaps, and perhaps not. Let us hope.      GERALD          E


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