Philosophy & Technology Session

“I For One Welcome Our New Robot Overlords”

Doug Klein, Union College

Should you be allowed to use genetic testing and engineering to ensure that your baby is not pre-disposed to certain genetically-linked illnesses? How about choosing the gender of your baby?  Or eye color? Or height; strength; musical talent; intelligence?

What about machines?  How intelligent can we make them?  How intelligent should we make them?  Can we make them intelligent enough that they can go on and make themselves more intelligent – sometimes called “the singularity”?  Should we?

Science and engineering seems to know no bounds, and is rapidly developing the ability to do all this and more.  Since there were humans, Humanists have speculated about the consequences of human actions – think Prometheus, Adam and Eve, through Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus and Carl Kapek’s robot play, “R.U.R.”  In 2000, Bill Joy, the co-founder of Sun Microsystems, wrote an article for Wired, called “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.”  In it he argues that technology will make humans obsolete.  The Joy article (ironically named) is worth a look. Here is a response to Joy by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid.  You can decide which side has the stronger case.

All this points to the enduring question, “Do We Control Technology or Does Technology Control Us?”  Wouldn’t it be ironic if the defining feature of humans – the use of tools – proves to be our undoing.  Or, as Elizabeth Kolbert glumly concludes in her 2006 book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, “It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.”

And so the question: What more can the Humanities contribute to tame this whirlwind?  (Whatever it is contributing now does not seem to be enough.)  Or is the role of the Humanities just to keep us distracted, content, and out of the way?


I for one welcome our new robot overlords

THATCamp          Union College         September 26-27 2013

 Technology in control in the Movies

2001: A Space Odyssey: I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I cannot do that.

WALL-E – Directive A113

I Robot      Trailer       Introduction to VIKI     Destruction of VIKI

The Matrix      The pills            The ending

Iron Man     Trailer

Planet of the Apes     Ending

Technology not quite in control in the real world

Observers of the growth of technological control

E.F. Forrester, “The Machine Stops”

Karl Capek, R.U.R.

Eric Drexler, Engines of Creation
Assemblers will be able to make virtually anything from common materials without labor, replacing smoking factories with systems as clean as forests. They will transform technology and the economy at their roots, opening a new world of possibilities. They will indeed be engines of abundance.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “The Future of Happiness,” in James Brockman, ed., The Next Fifty Years: Science in the First Half of the Twenty-First Century, pp. 102-103.
In the past, we were like passengers on the slow coach of evolution. Now, evolution is more like a rocket hurtling through space, and we are no longer passengers, but its pilots.  What kind of human beings are we going to create?

Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants, p. 12
[The technium is] a self-reinforcing system of creation. At some point in its evolution, our system of tools and machines and ideas became so dense in feedback loops and complex interactions that it spawned a bit of independence.  It began to exercise some autonomy.

Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization, Spencer Wells, pp. 52-53
We now come to the crux of what this book is all about.  When our ancestors created agriculture around 10,000 years ago, they had no idea of what other changes they were setting in motion.  They were simply responding to an immediate need for more reliable sources of food during a time of climatic stress, obviously making decisions about the future based on the near term rather than how events might ultimately play out.  …  Instead of relying on nature’s plenty, they were creating it for themselves.  By doing so they divorced themselves – and us – from millions of years of evolutionary history, charting a new course into the future without a map to guide them through the pitfalls that would appear over the subsequent ten millennia.

David Christian: Big History: The History of our World in 18 Minutes
So, here we are, back at the convention center. We’ve been on a journey, a return journey, of 13.7 billion years. I hope you agree that this is a powerful story. And it’s a story in which humans play an astonishing and creative role. But it also contains warnings. Collective learning is a very, very powerful force, and it’s not clear that we humans are in charge of it.