A more fundamental question might be, what role will Design and designers play in crafting, creating, characterizing, and charting the world of tomorrow? From the moment the weight of tedious tasks are lifted from our daily lives and our human ability to think, learn and adapt will pale in comparison to the threat of superior inelligence embodied by robots. There is an argument to be addressed : what is the responsibility of Design and designers in determining what does it mean to be Human?
At the start of the last century, the Industrial Design arose from the perpetual quest to get back in touch with the theory of meaning-making, a foundation of craftsmanship. It was about reconnecting with the purpose and values inherent in “manual labor”, viewing the hand as the “window on to the mind”, just as lifeless, factory assembly lines were outweighing line workers. The fear that Man, once the pivotal and indispensable element behind industry’s success, would eventually take a backseat to the Machine’s growing popularity, practicality and profitability, was growing. With the end of an era in sight, Man put up a futile fight to outrun an inevitable countdown towards his obsolescence. Stripped of his ability to reason, Man was already no longer. A few decades earlier, Marx (“Theses on Feuerbach” – 1845) outlined the stakes and responsibility of a world undergoing radical change when he wrote that “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”, as well as sketch out a new form of Humanism aimed at protecting Man from the Machine and industrial capitalism.
Frederick Taylor’s theories on Scientific Management and its place within Ford Motor Company’s facilities led to an organizational analysis broken down into two categories of individuals: on the one hand, those who govern, brainstorm, develop and implement processes and methods; on the other, those who carry them out mechanically for the warranted sake of productivity and profit. The more elaborate the models, the less workers would have to think, the more efficiently machines would run and the more lucrative the bottom line would be.
French native Henri Fayol takes things even further by simply preventing the worker to think. If the worker uses his brain, he will bring not only his career to a screeching halt, but also his workplace. In 1967, Roger Vailland describes to a tee in 325.000 Francs* what Fayol meant at the start of the 20th century. The main character in the book, a worker named Busard, has his arm chewed off by the injection molding machinery that he is operating after self-made attempts to boost productivity and better his work environment and overall living conditions fail dramatically. He who contemplates “the feeding machine” will be “fed to it” as demonstrated brilliantly by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, whose longing for better days would, ultimately, result in him getting caught up in the gears of a well-oiled, Man-eating machine in favor of supposedly more modern, yet tyrannic processes and paces boasting increased performance and reduced overheads.
As a result of this planned dehumanization of assembly line workers whose head and hands, or creativity and force, were being gradually scaled back due to increasingly imposing institutions and practices and Man-banning machines, Industrial Design emerged, restoring to Man a human place in mass production.
Robots: Machines with minds?
Fast forward to the 21st century: The arrival of robots has us asking the same questions on the importance and presence of machines in society as an alternative to human effort. The real and quite terrifying issue, though, is not so much their presence, but their ability to think. Donning Artificial Intelligence as sentient and sapient agency, they will outdo humans by a landslide when it comes to perception and rationale. Armed not only with performance levels exceeding those of humans, but also cognitive processes, the robot revolution raises two concerns: Where does Humankind fit in, and what connotation are we to attribute to it? Contrary to the early 20th century wherein manual labor was overtaken by machine labor, today’s plight takes automation to new levels with machines now boasting human competencies in several areas, including that of the mind.
Robots feature increasingly elaborate functionality. They will be stepping in where needed to handle a number of strenuous, work-related tasks, which, let’s be honest, may just be a godsend knowing that a considerable load, literally, will be lifted from our day-to-day. Not only will we need them to roll up their sleeves, we will also expect them to be smart, autonomous, learning-oriented, sensitive, rational and emotional. Artificial Intelligence will give robots the capacity and possibility to achieve at levels that rival those, up to now, possessed only by humans. This is already the case across myriad of fields. Who could have predicted, 30 years ago, that robots would have the ability to checkmate Chess champions or put a stop to Go gamers given the intelligence that these games embodied other than transhumanists? Making, calculating, memorizing, speaking – these are but a handful of the skills robots have. Robot surgeons operate better than human ones, and robot painters can brandish a brush stroke like Rembrandt*, whose already “superhuman” talent surpassed that of other artists. Learning and skill-building are now done autonomously.
The responsibility of Design and designers: What does being Human mean?
The question is of the utmost concern to both the field of Design and its designers, those for whom tomorrow is an ever-evolving work in progress and who instill meaning to it. What will being Human mean when robots will have outsmarted us? No longer a Sci-Fi fantasy, the question goes beyond all matters comprising the human condition. Its response craves a new form of Humanism for which designers will be at the helm. Breaking free from poverty, saving the planet from global warming, and pooling resources constitute the leading reasons for action. Rethinking what “being Human” means, however, is, by far, the most critical, for by not doing so, we may as well say good-bye to the historical biological humankind.
Are robots a threat to Mankind?
Today, we can perform a bionic hand transplant on an armless individual, and make the hand functional by having it interact with the person’s brain. Tying one’s shoes has never been easier. We can perform similar surgery on a disabled individual involving two bionic legs. The question has nothing to do with one’s humanity, for even with two bionic legs, the amputee is obviously still human. However, if both legs enable him to outrun a Track champion, would the amputee still be considered human?
There is no doubt that Artificial Intelligence will offer performance opportunities that we did not have before. Thought-controlled, the bionic hand and leg prostheses will both improve and further our capabilities. To up efficiency, you can rest assured that we will be donning the latest in tools and technology. That is our goal. Ever-stronger, ever-higher, ever-larger… even if it means sacrificing our own Mankind. Darwinians will say it is a matter of “survival of the fittest”, but where to draw the line between being “fit” or apt and dependent or even subservient? Is this a new form of Mankind, or have we taken to the likes of Busard and succumbed to the very Machine we created?
Can robots be intelligent?
The chances of them pondering the question of Mankind’s limits are slim-to-none, but this is what fundamentally makes them different from humans: They don’t have a conscience. Let’s say that they do not have a biological human conscience ; yet, this does not mean that there is not room for a machine conscience. Nevertheless, , they can reason and may be given agency or personhood, should the parameters established by society make it mandatory for them to do so. A speed trap is unable to judge why you were speeding and even less why you may have had to hit the gas to avoid an obstacle or maneuver around a dangerous situation. Speeding may have just saved your life or that of another. The camera catches you on film, and society finds you guilty. The Machine tells the “truth” to society despite the intelligence of your gesture in situ. Does truth override reason? And if so, does that give the Machine bragging rights over Man?
The robot paints “like Rembrandt”, plays an instrument, and can direct an orchestra. Tomorrow, it may even be the connection to our neighbors, doctor, lawyer, banker or insurance agent, who, in turn, may also be smart robots. It’s your avatar, your virtual twin, that will try on shoes you like for you on an e-commerce platform. The shoes will then be delivered to your home. Will the avatar be autonomous, and will it be able to pick out the color that goes best with the suit? Will it know what decision to make? Will the avatar solve one of the issues facing Mankind; that is, the ability to be everywhere at once? And if autonomous, will its capacities allow it to choose for the Other, or more simply, in lieu of him?
Sex robots: Where is the world headed?
The Artificial Intelligence revolution is in motion. The first sex robots are invading markets and phasing out the Other. To avoid straying too far from reality and to appease Mankind’s agony, what should a new form of Love look like? Why rule out sex robots from the get-go on the basis that they may not measure up to humans when it comes to performance and affection? And what if by chance they made “love better”, in which case they would then take the place of human partners? Love is a mix of kindness, reserve, shyness, uncertainty, passion and, of course, beauty. It is only natural then that robots, in order to mimic as closely as possible human behavior, be kind, reserved, shy, passionate, and pleasing to the eye.
Instinctively, Humansa will want the robot to resemble or her, have a heart, and shower him, or her, with love. It’s inevitable. To understand just how real the Humanization phenomenon of robots is today, take a closer look at the love some children show their Tamagotchi, saddened by its passing after having forgotten to feed it, or how attached certain elderly are to their Nao. This behavior is no different from that seen in France as of late in relation to pets whose once “non-existent” status has shifted to one of human-like dimensions. Projected love will count for real love, just like that which worshippers show God and whose love they believe is reciprocated based on the depth of their devotion. Love is pretty much a proxy, the reflection from a mirror positioned on the Other.
Through a perhaps humanistic lens, Saudi Arabia recently granted citizenship to a Sophia, a female robot. Granting a robot citizenship is one thing, and a quite remarkable thing at that, but deeming it human although merely a machine stirs up concern. The robot has acquired female “citizen” status thanks to Saudi nationals. Are we to applaud this maiden “gender” trend? Is this but an isolated event or simple acknowledgement of an early-warning sign that Robotkind will depend on the image we want it to have? If we want the robot to be a man, a woman, kind, faithful, loving, passionate or sensitive, then it will be. Only the idea we have in mind will matter. When we say that a dog is happy or that it recognizes its owner, we cannot guarantee either in reality. Perhaps a dog is loyal or affectionate but in the event it fears losing its way or when it is hungry.
Design, businesses and society: Making Man central again
In her work entitled, “A Manifesto for Global Design and Leadership”, Kolding School of Design Rector Elsebeth Gerner Nielsen writes, “The 19th and 20th century industry took its point of departure in these questions: What is profitable and what is technically possible? In the 21st century, the main question to ask is: What makes sense?” Design’s very premise is making sense of where Mankind is headed once smart robots will have taken over. Sustainable development, resource management, digital and physical transformations, population ageing, new mobilities and our security are nothing other than avatars masking a more burning issue: What changes will and must Man undergo and undertake to simply exist, and how is he to design a more balanced world despite the massive influx of intelligent robots capable of exponentially altering Mankind at record speeds, changing the face and nature of every social tie we have to every thing and individual around us? With all efforts aimed at instilling meaning, values and virtue across all facets of economic activity, the only question worth anything to businesses, and society on the whole, today is: “Where does Man fit in to all of this, and more importantly, How?” Corporate Social Responsiblility, or the tales of a “freedom-form company”, is nothing other than a smugly moralistic take on the movement in question. The real matter has to do with a corporate commitment to Humanity should businesses wish to stay in business. Should this not be their intention, then they may as well make a beeline for the nearest Exit, adopt compliance, convention and conformity as their credo, say good-bye to originality, not to mention their identity, and be gobbled up by bigger fish with deeper pockets. The same goes for society in general. Robotization is throwing us the curve ball of a lifetime, whose pitch is aimed not only at testing our ability to survive the Man vs. Machine revolution, but also driving us to create a lasting footprint for generations to come that exemplifies our new roles and responsibilities in favor of a world boasting greater justice, cooperation and respect for the planet. This is Design’s greatest challenge today.
Should we be delighted or depressed knowing that robots are well on their way to outdoing us on multiple fronts? Delighted, of course, because resisting would be pointless. The truth is, we don’t have a choice. In a category of its own, the question of human intelligence is worth bringing up again. It spurs debate on knowledge, the ability to reconcile thinking and doing, reasoning, love and emotion. If we weren’t worried about the future before, there is reason to be so now. Strangely, when fashioning the robot, Dr. Frankenstein played God. By being able to create God, Man will not only break away from the pack, but also be expected to reinvent all that is Sacred, all that he considers worthy of self-sacrifice. For Western cultures, aside from family, there isn’t much left worth the sacrifice. Be it God, one’s homeland, Communism or Anarchy, all idealisms have run out of steam. “God is dead”*, and with him, everything Sacred. Recreating God means freeing Prometheus from his chains, enabling him to restore fire to Humanity, as well as hope to Mankind.
Lastly and beyond the frontiers of the discernible and intelligible, I believe that no robot will ever have the intelligence to unravel the mystery behind this paradox: “I only tell lies.”
- “The hand is the window on to the mind.” – Emmanuel Kant.
- “Theses on Feuerbach” – Karl Marx – 1845.
- “The Principles of Scientific Management” – 1911 – Frederick Winslow Taylor.
- 325.000 Francs – Roger Vailland – 1967 – multiple editions.
- “The Gay Science” – Friedrich Nietzsche – 1882.