There was a time, even in the early days of my short life, that humans were considered the apex attainment out of that lazy green slime that luxuriated in the rocking of the gentle waves at the edges of the primordial oceans that covered a good deal of this planet. The sunlight was beneficent and the regular storms slopped a few green fragments on the damp rocks where most dried and expired but a few geniuses in the crowd figured out how to manage on the rocks and grow roots to suck up enough sustenance to get by. Other bits adventured in different directions and manufactured fins and gills and various paraphernalia. And thus our pioneering forefathers progressed to the point where Lindbergh dozed his way to Paris a year after I was born.
I remember, back then, on Decoration Day when the last few veterans of the American Civil War paraded in cautious faltering steps past my house on Narrows Avenue in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, to honor the neglected cemetery on 70th street where six or seven disarrayed graves marked the last resting place of a few Revolutionary War soldiers.
Radio was still sprouting then and the evenings started with Uncle Don and The Singing Lady and Buck Rogers In The Twenty Fifth Century. That last one most fascinated me as did the stories of H.G.Wells and Jules Verne. But what was rather curious about those speculative fictions, from today’s point of view, was the total lack of any mechanical intelligence or robots. We had a toaster but it lacked the elementary brain that understood when the toast was done and popped out the toast. All toasters these days are geniuses in comparison. And, of course, my desk top computer chuckles to itself all the time over the abysmal stupidity of my pop-up toaster. Things have moved along.
I saw my first sort of real humanoid robot at the Westinghouse Exhibit in the New York World’s Fair in 1939 It was a concept somewhat at the stage of a pseudo human mental flea although it was about six feet tall of gleamingly polished metal and was only adept at raising its right arm and clicking its five fingers and counting to five. But even my toaster was more adept at purposeful activity. And any simple calculator is brighter.
The IBM exhibit at that fair featured a huge cash register mounted on top of its exhibit hall and that seemed to be its main interest. It took the Second World War to prompt more depth in electronic circuitry. Considering the length of time it took for that first green slime to stand up and roar with an exquisite set of dentistry as Tyrannosaurus Rex, robots have done rather well in flexing their mental acumen. The robots are standing up and beginning to show their teeth.
Automatic machinery objections probably began even before the Luddite violence but there have always been necessary tasks in human society to take up the slack. Money has been an integral part of society well before modern civilization since necessities and other trade items required some way to persuade people to engage in required labor and be rewarded with what they needed to exist. Labor produced the goods and, through money, had access to them. But money itself is merely an invented mechanism to keep the system in operation. It can be produced by the stroke of a pen or a few taps on a keyboard. Banks do this every time they make a loan. Money has analogies in blood circulating in a body or grease and oil permitting a machine to function. Neither blood nor oil do anything of value except to keep the mechanism in operation.
So the problem of any machinery that replaces labor becomes a blockage to the relationship between a population and their access to necessary goods. And this is where the advance in artificial intelligence and computers are beginning to destroy the fundamental interrelationship between work and wages and the ability of the population to purchase what has been produced. A new relationship has to become established between the production and the consumption of goods. A couple of nations, Finland and Denmark that I have heard of, have been considering giving a basic income to the population, more or less in the fashion now of distributing old age pensions, so that the populace has enough funds to sustain itself by purchasing the industrial production. This solution seems a move in the right direction but all work is not equal. There are problems of incentive to do work that current robots still find beyond them. At Fukushima, for instance there are areas of deadly radiation where no robot has been made that functions properly. If a person can rely on a reasonable living standard without having to endure extremely dangerous work conditions how can the work be done? Perhaps that limitation might provoke society to prioritize robotic development to energize itself to create automatons to get the work done. It seems to me that there are enough skilled and talented people who are so delighted to be involved in such projects that money may not be the prime objective. This is a major turnaround in society and I have no idea if it can be solved.
But there is a further fundamental threat to human existence now rapidly coming to confront civilization. It has to do with the primal forces in the machinery of evolution. And also what we mean by “life”.
Humans and all the larger forms of life are not individuals. They are what might be thought of as specialized civilizations. A human adult has about one hundred thousand billion cells in its body This is far, far more individual cells in each adult human than there are people on the planet. Beyond that each adult human has ten times that number of bacterial cells in that body and though, no doubt, there are some of those bacteria who are looking to do real damage, a good many of them are an integral part of and a basic necessity for the existence of this huge community. This is the foundation of what we think of as life.
We do not include robots in this class we name life, Nevertheless some experts in te robotics field (see http://www.wsj.com/articles/when-machines-think-and-feel-1458311760 ) are convinced that the gap between robots and people is not only rapidly narrowing but think robots in the near future will well surpass humans in basic capacity.
Stephan Hawking, among others, is quite concerned about this. It may be the next major move in evolution.
In the relatively near future there seems to be small doubts that the Earth will succumb to heating that will make current agriculture almost impossible. Huge violences and catastrophes can very likely destroy civilization. But robots do not need the elaborate processes of agriculture to sustain themselves. They can take energy directly from the Sun and a hot Earth is no real problem for them. They could well survive and we most likely will not.