Robots – Man’s New Best Friend?

You know the future is already here when the European Parliament has a report on robots and AI. Not only the rapporteur, Luxemburg socialist MEP Delveaux Stehres, and Netopia take an interest in these topics, but also such prominent thinkers as Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates. The irony is that arch-capitalist-gone-philantropist Gates and French socialist presidential candidate Benoît Hamon have arrived to the same idea: tax robots to compensate for jobs lost. Gates wants to use the money for jobs in the public sector. Hamon prefers to give it out to citizen’s no questions asked as a “basic income”.

This begs many questions: does automation kill jobs? Will new jobs not come this time around? Is it useful to give out money carte blanche? How to pay for a program like that? Do we need a new tax-base besides labour? Will AI:s outsmart humans? Wake up and become “self-aware”? Even kill us as many a sci-fi writer have suggested? These are great questions, but today I have a different one on my mind. What is a robot?

Of course a robot can be a tin jar with arms, antennae on its head and a flat voice. Or it can be something like the Star Wars droids R2D2 and C3PO – different in appearance but with strong personalities. Or it can be a manufacturing robot spraypainting car bodies in a plant, basically a big hydraulic arm with a spray can on one end. But there are also software robots playing poker or chess, algorithms trading on the stock market, autopilots in airliners and self-driving cars. Turns out a robot can be many different shapes and sizes and probably difficult to distinguish from dumb machines in a meaningful way. So we’re looking for a useful metaphor here, let me suggest one: What if robots are dogs? No, wait, let me try to make this case…

Dogs can be useful and productive, like guide dogs, sled dogs, narc dogs, truffle-sniffing dogs… you get the idea. Dogs can also be pets, but so can robots. In facts, robots can be unintentional pets: in my house, we have a vacuum robot in our living room, it’s rather useless for cleaning (gets stuck under the comfy chair every time) but it’s so fun to watch it has become a party trick when we have guests. Watching the vacuum robot move across the floor is fun in the same way as watching cats do stupid things in online videos. So robots can be like dogs. Dogs have some rights: it’s against the law to abuse or hurt dogs. And dog behavior has consequences: if a dog bites a human, it will be put down.

In their 2013 book Big Data, Oxford professor Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Economist editor Kenneth Cukier suggest that companies should be held responsible for abuse of big data, creating an insurance system and specialist big data engineers. That could be a clue for how to deal with robots.

Or, you know, just treat them like dogs.