Would we be better off if we were run by robots?

Of course it is a joke, or mostly a joke, perhaps.

But as we witness the complete inability of humans to regulate themselves and embrace global projects that will start to address the problems of limited natural resources, globalization and climate change, we cannot help wonder whether humans are even capable of rising to the occasion.

When Albert Einstein wrote about world federalism in the 1950s, the facts were already clear: technology has moved so far beyond human’s ability to control that we need a global approach to assuring that technology is used responsibly and global war can be avoided. And yet, although the need for “world federalism” is even greater today, and the world is increasingly integrated by trade and the global exchange of information, if anything, humans are even less capable of coming up with global solutions.

Add to this problem the increasing dependency of people on computers and other machines and you can see the seriousness of the threat. We cannot live without using electricity. We cannot even argue for the importance of the environment without doing so.

But the hard question that we must ask ourselves is whether the issue is that we should just rise to the occasion, be less lazy and self centered and more global, and enlightened, or whether the human brain, the species homo sapiens, is simply not sufficiently evolved to engage in that sort of global thinking without falling back into the territoriality that is deep in his nature. Although technology seems to link us all together, we are merely re-articulating the tribal mind in another format in most cases.

Let us consider the environmental crisis for a moment. As I see even the most open-minded people caught up in the consumption of paper products, meat, and water on a terribly wasteful scale in wealthy nations, and increasingly in developing nations, I am deeply troubled. But is the real problem our selfishness?

Could it be that we have created through global trade (which is increasingly automated) and the global exchange of information (which includes money) a system that functions on its own, as a network of linked supercomputers, beyond human agency? Could it be that human desire is not the only source of the catastrophic changes we see? If there is a system that operates like a living thing, made up of the circulation of  information, which means the exchange of electrons on a global scale, could that system itself as it is driven by its own internal logic, become a system that follows a path related to, but not deriving from, human desires and needs?

After all, if we are looking at the interests of computers, then more networks are better, even if that uses more energy, and the more natural resources mined, refined and made into products for export, the better for the larger system of supercomputers coordinating international trade.

Now I am suggesting here that computers, or robots, are the culprits, but the my original suggestion was ironically the opposite. If the situation is that serious, perhaps the only response is to create systems on the same scale that can undo, or counter, the present fatal system. You might say that the question is whether we need something akin to the Forbin Project. That is to ask whether we need a massive system of computers to respond to the catastrophic trends, measuring accurately the impact of our actions on the environment and responding effectively.

I am not suggesting policy, only suggesting that if in fact the current environmental crisis has gone beyond human agency itself, the solution may be more complex than we had previously imagined.

3 responses to “Would we be better off if we were run by robots?

  1. Bruce Vojak December 24, 2011 at 4:14 pm

    As I posted in response on LinkedIn:

    “… if in fact the current environmental crisis has gone beyond human agency itself, the solution may be more complex than we had previously imagined.”

    It seems particularly fitting to have come across this specific statement of human despair in your blog on the Eve of Hope, Emanuel.

    All the best to you,

    Bruce

  2. vince December 27, 2011 at 12:41 am

    The Forbin Project was just a nibble of possibility. Try these robots out for a test run: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ELEwjVRxxGE

    Once resources are priced without the conceit of externalizing environmental and social costs, centrist, technocrats are probably the only ‘robots’ we’ll need.

  3. Emanuel Pastreich December 27, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    We have to be honest with ourselves. The last year of official climate change discussions have proven to be remarkably ineffective.

    There are two distinct questions:

    1) Is climate change irreversible? Have we gone so far that we cannot get back to where we were in the next few centuries?

    2) Is the process that generates climate change, from the destruction of forests, the misuse of water and the increase in emissions something now beyond human agency? Could it be that not only can humans not govern themselves, but they are no longer in control in an absolute sense as well?

    To quote Chalmers Johnson, with a slight twist: “In the end, we will be begging for the robots to take over”

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