The liberation of the machine system
Science fiction is a genre that has allowed to capture, explore and transmute techno-scientific ambitions in social and historical environments simulated, told, avoiding technical and temporal limitations. That exploration is, at the same time, an inspiration and a push for the research and development of real science and technology.
By Rubén González and Daniel Heredia
- Shall we make a deal?
- I'm just a machine. What good would a deal do to me?
Adam ignored the mockery.
- If I talk to you now, if I give you ten minutes, do you promise not to say anything else for the rest of the day?
- It will have to be fifteen.
- Your programmer was very conscientious, right?
- I program myself, and I accept the compliment.
- Self-programming does not exist.
- You self-program.
- I'm not a machine.
Suddenly, Art moved forward and the emotion lit his eyes. Adam backed away.
- I'd like to talk about that - Art said.
- About what?
- About what does determine that a machine is a machine? When the fifteen minutes start running.
- They have already started.
- So, do you accept fifteen?
- Okay, but they started five years ago.¹
Science fiction is a genre that has allowed to capture, explore and transmute techno-scientific ambitions in social and historical environments simulated, told, avoiding technical and temporal limitations. That exploration is, at the same time, an inspiration and a push for the research and development of real science and technology. We find points of inflection, convergence, in which reality reaches fiction, and simulated worlds become opportunities and real problems: explore outer space, access microscopic worlds, go beyond our senses, breathe under the water and reach the depths of the ocean, and the eternal dream of flying, of sailing the skies and moving enormous distances without effort.
As it happened with the previous examples, the myth of the automaton and its variants (android, robot and even cybernetic organism), starts from a liberating ambition, and not only in the acquisition of new human capacities that allow to break the limits of our biological ontogeny, but from creative and executive power, the control and release of work burdens. From the Golem of Prague to Stanisław Lem², the automatons represent synthetic intelligences of different order and form, capable of interacting with human beings as an efficient exploitation resource, designed on demand to serve us. Human non-human, lacking rights and weaknesses.
Once again, reality reaches fiction. In fact, the arrival of robotics in our environment is a phenomenon that we have already naturalized. We inhabit a highly robotized world, on which we depend to maintain the present socio-economic order. In the industrial area, with the dimension that this implies, we will not understand an assembling line (be it cars, bodies, screws, nuts or coils) without imagining a cohort of mechanical arms working with extraordinary speed and precision. An image that is repeated everywhere: food processing plants, textiles, invoices of all kinds of tools and objects. We live in a world populated by programmable machines that acquire increasing autonomy to solve problems.
And this is just the beginning of the unbridled technological revolution, which is structured around the concept of "Artificial Intelligence". This includes the development and application of relational agents, capable of perceiving their environment and of deploying flexible and operational solutions according to an objective or task. These range now from industrial machinery, facial recognition algorithms, through domestic robots (home automation) and digital entertainment (video games), although in the immediate future this can reach almost any product or object of consumption.
Robotics and automation introduce uncertainty at this point of inflection. This is a target to regenerate the dialogue around the conflicts (underlying and / or emerging) deployed by the current social orders. Beyond the technical aspect, robotics opens a gap on the dimension of the production and socialization model, dependencies that should be articulated around a new story that allows to provide real solutions to existing conflicts, and on which new complexities are now added:
- On the property of what is produced: the product.
- On the articulation of rights around a labor regulatory framework.
- On growth, work, distribution of goods and wealth, accumulation and surplus value.
- On sovereignty over value and use value.
- About the social structure, classes and degrees of exploitation.
- On the models of syndication.
- On political economy and legislation.
- On the establishment of new forms of gender around the cyborg³ paradigm.
If we must establish an order to signal our inquiry process, we can begin to ask questions about its origin and belonging. Because, when we talk about the work of agents with artificial intelligence, of robots in a broad sense, for whom do they work? What is the socio-labor impact derived from the incorporation of automatons to production processes?
This is an immediate dialogue in the face of impending conflicts. In only 5 years, it is estimated that 6% of jobs will be replaced by Artificial Intelligence⁴, and, according to a study carried out by the University of Oxford, around seven hundred professional sectors will be replaced by robotics. The studies determine that 47% of all jobs are at high risk of being automated in the next twenty years⁵.
Similarly, according to Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, "technological advances will allow people to stop doing repetitive tasks in order to invest all their attention and energy in things where we can really make a difference." In contrast, for Harvard professor Justin Reich, job destruction will be unsustainable: "I'm not sure that all jobs are going to disappear, although it's a possibility, but the jobs remaining are going to be worse paid and they're going to be more temporary than those we have now. The middle class is going to sink6".
What synthesis can we make about this conflictive relationship in the sphere of production, of work?
If the current form of production tends to disappear, and the social order imposed by the logic of the market determines a principle of accumulation that favors the rents of capital against the income from labor, it seems that there is an increase in inequalities around the current production structures. A much more aggressive polarization than the current one, in a very short period of time. Should we be subsumed around a certain productive model? Should we not discuss the distribution of wealth? There are many groups and movements that talk about the need to establish re-distribution models, determining the need to incorporate quotation bands and retention of income tax for the automatons with which we will live in the nearest future. Just look at some of the observations made. According to Jerry Michalski, founder of the Think Tank REX: "Automation has won the race for human work, and as long as we need a fiduciary currency to pay rent or mortgage, human beings will be expelled from the system en masse6".
At the time, and in dependent opposition, we must discuss not only what is the relationship that is established from the human to the machine, but from this to the human. Artificial Intelligence is a challenge not only technical, but social, philosophical and of collective identity. By giving the automatons the capacity to learn, to self-reference, of forms of intelligence that can be homologous to the human level, future and immediate challenges and responsibilities are posed.
In fact, Artificial Intelligence is emerging as a new subject covered under a bill of rights. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Robots (ASPCR) has been trying since 1999 to defend that "robots are also people (or at least they will be one day)". Its objective is to "guarantee the rights of all sentient beings created artificially".
In the United States, the Science and Technology Committee has recently published a report addressed to the White House, with the guidelines that the North American government should follow on the development of Artificial Intelligence. Similarly, the British Scientific Council has generated its own study addressed to Parliament. Both reports agree on an essential point: Artificial intelligence is not something that can be left for an ever distant future, but a reality that must be addressed as soon as possible⁷.
The Ministry of "Trade, Industry and Energy" of South Korea already applies a "Constitutive Act of Robotic Ethics" to make responsible use of robots without exploitation of them by humans⁸.
Starting with the socio-economic relations of what this technological revolution entails, the chain of interdependencies seems to have no end. How do we define and categorize the actions and the subjects and objects that lead them in this new scenario of value creation? Why, beyond the moral and / or subjective, we do not place ourselves in quantifiable criteria to be able to value a new socio-cultural scenario?
For this, we can take reference indicators that establish a direct relationship between any productive activity, such as the model of energy matrix used for its operation; in short: an appeal to efficiency, efficiency over all production process. And is that every production process seem to depend on the control over the whole system, and this seems to come off its human dimension for more and more tasks defined in production control. The only reason why it is possible to classify a machine process under an energy efficiency criterion is because it is known exactly how to use it as a closed system.
Are machines the performance paradigm? Is energy efficiency its raison d'être? What happens when we make a comparative cross? Let's take the example of a washing machine. These types of machines can be easily compared based on their standard cotton program at a certain washing temperature. Observe the energy difference in the use of our energy matrix; if a person develops an average power of about 100 watts (w) for 8 hours a day, a washing machine consumes 2,400 w in a hot water wash program of just one hour. This determines the use value of the machine and the scale on a "magnitude determined by the amount of socially necessary work", regardless of the energy efficiency that is developed. Western societies, for example, do not find it inconvenient to generate a disproportionate energy expenditure as a way to release a much lower energy sample. Or is it not the same energy? Or is it not the same subject?
The global average power consumed during the year 2014 is 17 Tw (think of the Earth as a huge light bulb lit day and night). By dividing this average consumption by the 7,200 million people that inhabit the globe, we would have 2,400 w per person. A washing program. Something that, by all accounts, is compressed in unequal territories.
But, we can do an inverse exercise. What is the average consumption of a population mass when developing a job? Is not there an energy equivalence? We can calculate how many individual units (those 100w / 8h) each of us has had in order to be able to subordinate use value to our metabolic, operative and / or functional system. To keep alive is the equivalent of 40 washing machines in constant operation, throughout the day and 365 days a year (in the case of Spain).
It seems that the problem can be placed on the ability of an object to satisfy a need. Because, in summary, the question is not whether the machine performs the task more efficiently than the human, but that it does so in less time and, above all, without our intervention. We "waste" huge amounts of energy as the price to pay for the release of workloads.
What if we spoke of energetic slaves, of inorganic beings? What distances us from these?
Ontology and ontogeny
The ability of an object to satisfy a need, its use value, is related to the loss or gain of complexity in the system and, consequently, to the energy and / or energy balance that it requires for its existence.
There is a supposed contradiction exposed through the second law of thermodynamics, which relates the increase of entropy to the degradation and destruction of complexity. The more entropy, the less information. This seems to contradict the evolution of complex biological forms, or even, as has been postulated repeatedly, increasingly complex.
The enunciation of the second law of thermodynamics dictates that in every closed system, entropy, the spatial distribution of molecules, tends to the maximum possible until reaching equilibrium. That is to say, the universe tends towards a state of disorder.
In classical thermodynamics, characterized by reversible processes and linear cause-effect dynamics, entropy is a positive value that inevitably leads to molecular disorder and homogeneity of the system. But in nature, unlike in the ideal situations of the chemists and physicists of the nineteenth century, closed systems are conspicuous by their absence. In fact, the basic notion that living beings have an order and a stable organization over time seems to squarely confront the "second law", at least in its classical form described by Clausius. Because, as is evident, organisms (except in death) seem to evade the universal tendency towards the growing disorganization, towards the increase of entropy that would lead to its degradation inherently.
It was Erwin Schrödinger, in his small in size but rich in ideas "What is life?" (1944), who approached in an alternative and very interesting way to this question, proposing that metabolism is but a form of export entropy (positive entropy) from the organism to the environment in order to maintain its organization. In his own words:
"How does the living organism avoid decay? The obvious answer is: by eating, drinking, breathing and (in the case of plants) assimilating. The technical term is metabolism. [...] Thus, a living organism continually increases its entropy - or, as you may say, produces positive entropy - and thus tends to approach the dangerous state of maximum entropy, which is dead. It can only keep aloof from it, i.e. alive, by continually drawing from its environment negative entropy [...]. What an organism feed upon is negative entropy ".⁹
Living beings, including humans, obtain energy by placing ourselves at the interface of the processes of entropic degradation, processes that allow us to order the surrounding matter into organized structures that support that precious set of activities we call Life. Structures that are internal (autopoietic), but also external (niche construction). We can say that Evolution (as a total sum of processes) has recurrently (perhaps progressively) given the appearance of functions and structures that make the organization of living beings more complex, expanding the limits of their organization, and even printing them out of the domains of the body. Because every organism "adapts to its environment" while "adapting its environment" through work. From the construction of a termite mound, to a metropolis, passing through the humble cellular exudates. But also in the interaction with other beings, with whom relationships of interdependence, exchange and exploitation are established. And with a machine, the metabolic product of human work? Is the machine an evolutionary product, an exudate, an extension of human organicity?
Let's go one step further. When we talk about the impression of Artificial Intelligence, the routines of language, the implantation of devices, and even the transfer of consciousnesses in the near future, we are talking about an evolutionary leap. Not because humans acquire the capacity to transform their environment, nor because they position themselves as active subjects of their own evolution (qualities that we can discuss if they are inherent in life), but because in their planned transformations they have facilitated the appearance of inorganic agents that display functions and forms in direct analogy with organic life. We have given our identity to machines, our perception (our senses), our ideas. The automatons are (will be) human reflexes.
We are talking about Artificial Intelligence algorithms capable of abstracting and reconstructing reality as if they were dreams, robots that adopt identities from historical networks, that respond in a flexible and coherent way to human needs; we are talking about the learning of routines and behaviors², about processes that only work like a black box, like our brain, and that generate solutions that we barely understand¹³. About efficient war machines arranged to eliminate our (their?) similar¹⁴.
Do machines evolve? Do they increase their complexity? Is autopoiesis the last frontier of what we understand by Life?
Some narratives about origin and evolution describe leaps that begin with the organization of inorganic elements to constitute themselves as ordered and self-replicating matter, and continue with the transposition to carbon chemistry as life support. A change of state without loss of information that opened the doors to an unprecedented diversification. In this scheme, returning to the thread of science fiction, robotics supposes a closure of the cycle, the return to inorganic chemistry as a support for life, for the ideas that we print in it, that print us. The acquisition of a new materiality confronted with the entropic degradation of our bodies. A jump, like any jump, with gain of degrees of freedom, of complexity. Beings with whom we live in a present, with whom we will live in the near future. Beings with which we will have to establish our bases of relationship, interdependence, exploitation.
Because, after all, what beings can these be? How far do we have and what will we have in relation to them? Do we not already live with a huge amount of cybernetic extenders, devices that we live with and among whose we inhabit? There are few science fiction stories that allow us to establish debates around this. Perhaps it is that we are no longer in the sphere of fiction. As neither do science fiction stories seem to be the struggles and movements for civil rights, trade unions, or those that currently face the greatest resistance and obstacles: women, animals, childhood, care. What can we remind to that world of science that showed humans in zoos well into the 20th century? The same is necessary to free these beings to gain degrees of freedom, to conquer new rights as subjects, in our case and to date, human subjects. Will we see how a robot will have more quotation than a human? More rights than an animal? Than a woman? Than a social class? We generate more spending on feeding a cow to guarantee the trophic chain in the West than in feeding a little girl from the continents of the South. How does this relate to complexity, to the energy matrix? Maybe these beings could be allies for the transformation of social order. Hopefully, we will not take so long to understand the importance of the development of knowledge, the scientific praxis. It seems that we are not able to assimilate that the reasoned function, in the framework of the simplest formal logics, can serve to free us as humans from the subsumption to the morphology of this machine model subordinated to power and capital.