Saturday, 1 April 2017

Rise of the robots - I know how it begins...

Paperboy, barman, political speechwriter.  Physicist, engineer.  Aeronautical R&D.  Vacuum moulding machine operator, croupier.  Travel journalist, radio comedy writer, screenwriter.  In my case all of these jobs, careers and specialisms can be prefixed with either 'former' or 'failed'.  Which may be a cause for a massive shrug of the shoulders given the latest story on how robots will take all our jobs.

In the light of this approaching socio-economic apocalypse I'm all the more delighted that my current career choice (admittedly not the only egg in my basket) is as an author, given what fell out of the BBC's Secret Science of Pop. In this a rather sad looking evolutionary biologist, who professed no knowledge of or interest in pop music, tried to engineer a hit record by conducting deep statistical analysis on half a century's worth of top 40 hits.

And, guess what?  He fell on his arse.  He may have got back on one elbow by showing that his algorithms can pick a decent tune out of a bucket of pre-existing tracks by wannabe racket-making beat combos, but as for the actual creative process?  Pulling the inspirational hook, line, riff, melody or lyric out of the ether?  Sorry, no amount of coding will get you there.  At least not yet.

By extrapolation, my reading is as long as people want creative products then there'll have to be creative people to provide.  Including writers.  Not robots.  People.

Frank Lansink, chief executive for Europe at IPsoft is quoted as believing that fighter pilots are the least at risk of having their jobs taken by ones and noughts.  Given the rise of drones that aren't subject to the limits imposed by the human body's frailty under G-force I'm not sure I agree that they're even candidates.  Drone versus piloted aircraft in a dogfight?  I'm betting on the drone.

More prosaically, I've seen electricians and plumbers cited as protected species; their ability to combine practical, applied problem-solving with wriggling between the floorboards being something a robot can't yet deliver.  Of all the professions and specialisms in my CV perhaps paperboy is the one that comes closest - if it wasn't for the fact that the content is already delivered paperlessly to our devices, and will soon, in part, be written by algorithms.

I've mentioned Humans in previous postings.  Contrast it with - and this is a long way from sci-fi, I'll grant you- Further Back in Time for Dinner, which charted the changing culinary habits of a nation.  The servant class was represented by the irrepressible Debbie.  Skivvying at the start of the 20th century as a maid of all work, by the midpoint she has the vote, far greater social mobility and work options.  As somebody who has on occasion produced gender pay comparisons, don't think I'm saying that the back had been broken of gender inequality, but a great deal had been achieved between Britain losing and gaining a female monarch.

Debbie circa 1900 is, of course, the robot of 2030.  It took a couple of world wars, during which time the women took the men's jobs whilst the men lined up to be slaughtered, to upset the social order to the degree that the foundations of gender equality could be laid.  What will it take for a conversation about 'sentient rights'* to be started?  What will the robots have to do - be forced to do - to make the same transition that firstly slaves, then women have made?

Terrorists or freedom fighters, will this be what starts the robot wars?

* Bad news: I don't appear to have coined this phrase.  Good news: previous uses appear to apply to animals and New Zealanders, so perhaps I have expanded the definition.

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