R.U.R.F.R. Are You Ready for Robots?

Creepy? Silly? Big Brother? Futuristic? The Beginning of the End? The Signal for the Singularity from which the Terminator emerges?

Malibu Security Mart Robot, photo from Roland Woerner

Mobile security robots are popping up with increasing frequency at gas stations, malls, and casinos. It caught my attention when this morning’s news had a snippet that Huntingon Park is installing a “robocop” to patrol city streets. Another story from CBS Los Angeles back in February asked, “Is 2019 the Year Robot Security Guards Go Mainstream?” Whether we label them robots, bots, nanos, androids, automation, or Big Brother, the permeation of programmed surveillance throughout our culture is something that requires continuous vigilance and assessment.

Robocop from 1987, photo from filmschoolrejects.com

Imaginary Cautionary Tales

Like many, I find the increasing examples of robo-guards disturbing, in part because there are so many stories about robots gone haywire. Reference to the word “robocop” immediately conjures up Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 dystopian tale of a privatized military and a militarized police force. Will Robinson’s companion robot from Lost in Space, the show I grew up watching, was originally programmed to sabotage the ship and murder the humans. Even when the robots are cute, like in Wall-E, there are often mastermind machines behind the scenes determined to tame or neuter humans. See also Oblivion. See also Forbidden Planet. See Iron Giant, Westworld, well, just see this handy list from BuzzFeed.

The word “robot” comes from a 1920’s Czech play by Karel Capek called R.U.R., which stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots. Capek coined the word roboti as a deliberate reference to the Old Slavic word rabu or slave. In the play, humans are producing robots (androids we might say, since they have human features and characteristics) originally to take on menial work. But the humans start to die out, the robots rebel, and they are left to restart the world in their image.

B9, Lost in Space, friend or foe? Photo by Pinterest

Real Cautionary Tales

Cautionary tales aren’t limited to fiction, of course. Everyone knows at least one colossal Roomba-fail story, usually involving the unfortunate intersection between room sweeper and the “presents” left by the family pets. Those torpedo-shaped Knightscope robots, pictured at the top, have knocked over people, run into toddlers, and even fallen into fountains (“drowned”). MIT reported in 2017 that people “don’t really like them.”

Schoolchildren taunt them, drunks topple them, and homeless people smear their lenses with barbecue sauce. “It is your duty to destroy these things if you see them,” tweeted one man during a protest against the robots in San Francisco.

MIT Technology Review, Biggest Failures of 2017

As a roving camera, robot security guards seem less of a threat than a deterrent. More concerning to me is the increasing use of mobile video screens, which people use in work settings to substitute for the inability to be there in person. The Good Wife satirized these TV-screen-heads-on-wheels to great effect. It doesn’t humanize the automaton to have a disembodied face on a screen above it–it’s creepier. When the entire conference room is full of screens and no people, it makes you wonder why they can’t just all Skype.

Other real instances are more troubling. Last March, a family was informed by their doctor that a patient didn’t have long to live through one such video screen. It wasn’t clear from the news whether Kaiser, which apologized for the incident, used such approaches routinely or not. Might as well just send me an email.

The new healthcare? photo by KTVU

That Ship Has Sailed

Suppose I want to opt out of all these flawed, menacing, inhuman contacts… as I type my blog on my laptop, look up research notes on my tablet, and respond to texts coming to my phone. After I drove to the gym, signed in with the fingerprint scanner, watched two different TV programs, and played Pokemon while I monitored my progress on the bicycle, measuring calorie, distance, and time… I can’t just go off the grid here.

In the very first episode of the innovative 1978 TV series Connections, created by historian James Burke, he pointed out the dangers of technology while demonstrating how impossible it is to disconnect from it. At one point, he holds up a handheld plow and asks the question, “Do you even know how to use this?” And that show predated all personal computers, Apple, smart phones, and robots.

Of course, we know people who have attempted to get off the grid, but that seems partly laughable. Even if you could find someplace outside of surveillance where you somehow grew your own food, sanitized your own water, and protected yourself from the elements–without chemicals or transportation other than a horsecart–you would be isolating yourself from the rest of civilization. How’s that workin’ out, Ted Kaczinski?

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

A better idea is probably becoming more vigilant. Tiresome as it might be, what we need is to continuously ask ourselves if the technology is needed and useful as well as how it should be monitored. A robot security guard ultimately is a mobile camera. We understand the value of cameras and know that the real question isn’t whether there should be one, but who gets to see the data? How might it be used? I actually do want someone to watch you, if you’re going to steal a package from my front porch. Maybe I’m just nervous that I don’t want you watching me.

In those cautionary tales, there’s nearly always something behind the malevolent automaton: an alien, a corrupt corporation, a ruthless megalomaniac, or even a foolish “helpful” human. Someone programs these things. We should modernize the question from the Roman poet, quis custodiet ipsos custodes:

Who Will Watch the Watchers?

from the Satires by Juvenal

All machines have a program. The question is Who is Monitoring the Programmers?

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