"That place," the nice older lady said as she prepared to step back into her Lexus. "It was so clean. Do you know they have a machine that cleans the floors? It just moves around all day, cleaning the floors of their shop. We should get one."
I was waiting at the counter of my local garage, one of those places that has been a fixture in the community for 50 years or more. The older lady climbing into that Lexus had the same last name as the name on the big sign out front; she had stopped in to check on something after visiting a competitor dealership's service department. The man to whom she was speaking, the manager of the garage, smiled and nodded. He didn't really explain to her that there was no way some sort of floor-scrubbing automaton was going to make a dent in the decades of oil and grease etched in the concrete of the service bays out back.
Most of us experience no small amount of stress when getting our cars serviced because they are, more and more, black boxes of mystery and magic. Gas and oil go in, and transportation results ... but the processes that occur to get the result from the inputs seem like so much sorcery, thanks to the extensive computerization involved. Why, just this past May, when it was time to get my car inspected, the computerized system that monitors emissions sensors within the vehicle dictated that, even though all mechanical work mandated had been performed, I could not get my inspection sticker. I ended up driving around for a week with a portable monitor plugged into my dashboard, so that the second the mysterious sensor "cleared," I could high-tail it over to the garage, whereupon the computerized inspection sticker machine would finally bless me and send me on my way.
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Given the amount of control that computers, computerized processes and machines in general have over our lives, we ought to be taking a long, hard look at just how much power we grant these devices. Every time an automated red-light camera takes the place of a flesh-and-blood police officer, doling out tickets based on the merciless data of its unblinking lens, we lose a little bit of our humanity, collectively – and we lose a little bit of control.
The threat does not come from Roomba-like robots mindlessly scrubbing the floors of our car dealerships. It comes, instead, from machines – robots, essentially – that are taking over aspects of human endeavor that previously involved the direct involvement of human beings. We're not talking about artificially intelligent machines doing what they wish without our consent, of course. Rather, the concern we should be raising revolves around how the increased use of machines to replace people both dehumanizes us and removes human discretion from processes that become automated.
If you think all of this seems somewhat farfetched, look to your nation's military. Robots are already used extensively by our armed forces, and Popular Mechanics reports that there are more than 6,000 robots in use on battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is only the beginning. The Department of Defense is testing unmanned robot vehicles in Maryland, while the United States Air Force is contemplating a future in which its aircraft are all drones – unmanned vehicles like the Predator drones even now seeing combat overseas. Already, there are rumblings that such combat robots pose a threat to humanity and that their development may presage a robotic arms race. Washington analyst P.W. Singer predicts that "wired war" is indeed coming, and that combat robots represent the future of the battlefield.
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The future is not all a bleak dystopia of skeletal metal warriors trodding on the skulls of the human masters they've vanquished, however. Even as robots eclipse humans in the future of warfare – as leading edge a field of human endeavor as any other, and perhaps more important – there is hope for the development of consumer technology and robot machinery in our daily lives. In Japan, serious work is being done to develop service robots capable of caring for the sick, the elderly and children. Also in Japan, sensors mounted in vending machines have resulted in something called the "street corner vigilance robot," basically a public safety surveillance device. Whether you see that as good or bad depends on how you view our increasingly saturated culture of surveillance, globally – and of course robots do and will play a significant role in that ever more pervasive network of monitoring devices watching your every move.
Still, the benefits of the technology cannot be denied. Robots used in medicine alone represent tremendous benefits to countless people suffering from injury and chronic illness. There's even hope for those skeletal robot warriors: Cnet News reports that it may be possible to teach robots ethics based on the Three Laws of Robotics created by science fiction author Isaac Asimov.
Robot technology is here to stay. It is encroaching on all areas of our lives – areas previously thought to be the sole purview of human beings, from child care to surgery to warfare. The key to integrating this technology in society and in our day-to-day use of that technology lies in understanding just how easily such automation dehumanizes us. We cannot afford to become complacent, and we must never come to rely completely on robots to do things that we, as human beings, must still remain able to do. A robot that cleans your floors is one thing. A robot that takes care of your children or drops bombs on your enemies is quite another.
If you're not losing the occasional night's sleep contemplating the ways in which machines are supplanting human beings in all walks of life, maybe you should be. Technological process tends to be one way, which means we need to consider, carefully and thoroughly, just what genies we're letting out of what bottles. We won't be able to unring these auto-tuned bells.