So Man Created the Robot in his Image and Likeness


And so has been trying since the origins of what we know as civilization. There were attempts at creating robots in ancient China, Egypt and Greece.  At the risk of being tediously monothematic, it surely is an understatement to say that 2016 was the Year of the Robot. Men are losing their jobs to robots, as The New York Times recently reported, and are at a loss as to how to respond.

Yet it wasn’t until the 20th century that writers, then scientists first conceived what would be the robots as we know them today. Walking boxes, metal creatures that had lights for eyes and hooks for hands and spoke in an electronic monotone were just cartoonish precursors of today’s real ones.

Most of our contemporary robots are not anthropomorphic automatons. How many of you bump into R2D2 or ASIMO in the streets? Yet we are surrounded by them: vacuum cleaners, translation software, mechanical arms at auto assembly plants, chess players, and, among countless other applications, the self-driving cars.

These modern robots are arms without bodies, eyes without heads, and all of them brains without feelings. They are, as their name says, “robots”, a word of Church Slavonic origin that in different Slavic languages, from Bulgarian to Russian, means “work,” “serf,” “worker,” “hard work,” and related concepts.

The word was coined by Czech writer Karel Čapek in his 1920 play R.U.R. In Čapek’s work, a robot was indeed an automaton. (Later he attributed the invention of the term to his brother, Josef).

While Čapek’s is now largely forgotten and his works unread, the name that he or his brother coined have come to define an era. And quite fittingly so. Imbibed in the positivism of the 19th century that measures man as a function of labor and production, men in the 20th century – the bloodiest in History, in which totalitarian regimes reduced men to simply an economic unit, devoid of the transcendence that life brings on every sentient creature, from a tree to an animal – were reduced to, fundamentally, economic units. Hence, a creature made in the image and likeness of the 20th century man would be a working machine.

It may not be coincidence that the most remote Proto-Indo-European stem of the Slavic word “robot” seems to have been “horbh,” or “orphan.” The term evolved into “work” by way of later senses that came to mean “hardship” and “loneliness.”

We wished this Christmas the scientists that are populating the workplace with robots will draw inspiration from the best robot ever, made by Geppetto, a carpenter from Florence. Well, he wasn’t really a robot because he didn’t work hard (or at all), and he lied a lot, too. But Pinocchio, the wooden puppet that wanted to become a real boy, is dear to us all.

And may they be also inspired by Rabbi  Judah Loew ben Bezalel, who in 16th century Prague created the most accomplished Golem yet, the clay creatures of Jewish lore, and which Borges immortalized in his homonymous poem:

The rabbi explained to it the universe
“This is my foot, this is yours, this the rope.”
And after years got the perverse creature
To sweep the synagogue, well or badly.

The rabbi observed it with tenderness
and with some horror. “How” (he asked)
“could I beget this sorry son
and abandon inaction, wherein sanity lies?”

In the hour of anguish and lack of light,
his eyes on his Golem would rest.
Who will tell us the things God felt
when looking at his rabbi in Prague?

As always, poetry and literature have preceded science by centuries. May 2017 be the year when the invention of Rabbi Loew will come to fruition. And let us hope will have Pinocchio among us, too. We forgive him all his lies. Perhaps he can even tell us the truth.

Robots and Unemployment: It’s Complicated


“Imagine 10 times as many people were unemployed today than are,” said Silicon Valley luminaire Vinod Khosla. He was referring to the potential consequences of widespread service automation. Let’s consider Mr. Khosla’s premise as if we were writing a science fiction story. What kind of plot would we follow from it?

When Technology Sets Off a Populist Revolt

The plot Mr. Khosla and many others fear is a dystopia where social order breaks down and we fight for survival, much like in Octavia Butler’s “The Parable of the Sower”. William Gibson imagines a more familiar near future on “The Peripheral”, in which characters survive doing odd jobs here and there, with a lot of help from family and friends.

Other authors imagine humanity uses all the spare time to go to space. Perhaps we will become soldiers when we retire, as in John Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War”. Or we could get very cool jobs, like the character in Kim Stanley Robinson’s “2312” who is an asteroid terrarium designer.

The root of Mr Khosla’s concern is how to keep humans busy when every job is done better by a robot. Charles Stross tackles the issue heads on in “Saturn’s Children”: after humans are bored to extinction, our androids take over the solar system. A funny twist of Stross’ story is that androids also become jobless when they are obsolete, using their downtime to discuss the mythological humans and our odd quirks.

“Nonsense” says economist Tim Worstall on Forbes. Even if robots do our jobs better than us, “it will still be to our advantage for us to do what we are least bad at”. Though he then admits that economy as a discipline is not best equipped to imagine a future without scarcity.

Nonsense About Robots: 50% Unemployment, Sex Robots And The Problem Of Leisure

He needs not worry: there’s plenty of scarcity to go around. In fact, we don’t have to go far to see ten times the 5% unemployment of the US; youth unemployment in Greece is over 50%. Just in case, seems ever practical to find something we are not too bad at. Here’s a list of the fastest growing jobs, but don’t be too depressed if, like this correspondent, you have to settle for “statistician”:

The fastest growing jobs

Our journey from birth to death: a British study

In March 1946, a group of British scientists recorded the birth of every baby in the country in one particular week with the goal of studying their lives as they unfolded. The study still runs and it has become, as it happens, a continuous insight, from cradle to grave. Throughout the years and the decades, these dedicated scientists, for the most part anonymous to the world, have put under the microscope these men’s and women’s birth, childhood, education, marriage and work, and now, that they are approaching the sunset of their lives, how they are coping with old age. Throughout commonalities—educational shortcomings, for instance, were shocking to discover, as well as health conditions such as obesity and cholesterol—one common pattern emerged: social class, or where we stand in terms of income and opportunities already at birth, has a major impact in determining the path our lives follow. It was startling to note that those born in 1958 had a better shot at social mobility than the 1970 class. The study has helped shape British government policies to remedy some of these inequalities.