One of Hollywood’s oldest tropes is the robotic usurpation of humankind. It makes for compelling thrillers and science fiction. The variety of narrative twists possible are in-numerable. Terminator, a luminary of the genre, implanted this fear as efficiently as Jaws did in cultivating a phobia of sharks into an entire generation. As narratives go, everything else pales in comparison — a cautionary tale regarding one’s lust for power which inevitably capsizes when it surmounts its peak. The theme is so pervasive that we have come to accept it as fait accompli.
Only further fomenting the all but inevitable Decepticon annihilation into our minds, tech gurus have also sounded the alarm. Elon Musk, a deserved legend of our time, famous for introducing commercially available autonomous vehicles, has been a particularly pious member of the faith, with comments such as, “the risk of something seriously dangerous happening is in the five-year timeframe. 10 years at the most.” (Edge.com). But even our journalists with earned and deserved respect have joined the bandwagon. Nick Bilton, for instance, opined, “the upheavals can escalate quickly and become scarier and even cataclysmic.”
In the context of a Sci-Fi thriller, these pronouncements make sense. However, under the constraints of reality, the risk of Artificial Intelligence (AI) starting a massive global war is highly unlikely (and, also a lack-luster narrative).
To understand this, the question to answer is the, “why?” As in, why would AI wish to conquer us? Thirst for power is prosaic, as power is only a symptom of a much more profound desire. It is only when the discussion is taken to its core, that we begin to shed light on the problems with this simple thesis. Consider this, to what end would robots want to conquer the planet? Understand, that machines and life-forms exist under different constraints, thus to extrapolate life’s need for domination as equitable with machines’ would lead our conclusions astray.
Let’s start with biological life. All organic life forms (herein “organics”) are united by one common purpose, which is immortality that is achieved via reproduction. This is common across all animal and plant species. True Immortality does not exist for organics, and so all organics are united with the singular and universal core purpose of successful reproduction that is the base construct of their normal being. Taken one step further, not only do they wish to reproduce, but even more so, to protect their reproductive outcome is to ensure its own future immortality.
Different organics achieve immortality via various means. Plants, for instance, spore thousands upon thousands of seeds at wild abandon into the world, hoping that a small percentage will successfully germinate. Plants utilize volume, odds, and statistics. Animals that live in very hostile environments also do the same, they produce large quantities of offspring, understanding that the majority of their brood will fail. And then there are others, such as mammals, that produce far fewer progeny, but will fight to the death to ensure their survival.
Living in the harsh realities of survival that we romanticize as a harmonious nature, animal breeds coalesce in communities, wherein members gain strength in numbers. Together they ward off predatorial threats to life from organics within and without their species. Or, they merely decrease their odds of falling prey by swimming in pools, running in herds or flying in flocks.
But a robot does not face this reality. Robots, by definition, are immortal from the outset. As long as energy is available and they avoid injuries, malware, viruses, molten lava, EMP’s and short-circuits, etc. a machine will live indefinitely. Robots do not need to consume other robots, plants, fruits or humans to survive. They merely need power, and as we move further into the future, it becomes more and more likely that they can become entirely powered by solar energy, thus making their energy source infinite.
Unlike organics, machines have absolutely zero need to reproduce to achieve immortality. A commonality of reproduction is not there. If anything, any replica a machine creates will only become its competitor. Being that machines have no natural predators (they cannot be eaten) and do not compete for natural resources for sustenance (sunlight is infinite and readily available), community formation for foraging, shelter, defense, etc., is unnecessary. A machine’s only real competitor would be other machines, not humans.
All in, a machine’s needs are entirely different than that of organics. Organics need to eat and pass excrement, while machines do not. Organics need shelter for defense against the weather and predators. Machines do not. If an organic does not reproduce, it will necessarily fail to exist eternally. Machines, on the other hand, by default live forever. For organics, different species are threats to one another because they are competing for the same limited resources. Machines would not compete for the same resources as their only real resource, the sun, is unlimited. Organics form communities to defend and contend with all the above. Because machines have none of these limitations, the formation of communities would not be a default social order for them.
Which takes us one step further into the other fear regarding robots — that all our jobs will be gone. Understand, that economics is not the study of money but that of trade. Money is simply the most efficient tool for trade, and therefore misunderstood as the analog to it. Machines would be unable to do all our jobs since it would imply that there would be nobody for the machines to partake in trade with. Without trade, there is no economy. Without an economy, there is no job for a machine to perform. As the economies of physical labor become cheaper with robots, the value of service-based labor by humans increases. Thus, explaining the frothing of massage establishments all over the country. Once considered a luxury service, now it’s a dime a dozen.
This fear for the worst is rooted in organics. Until only recently, survival was something humans fought for by the minute. If left untended, children risked being consumed or taken into servitude. Viruses and bacteria were life-threatening. Still, for the rest of the animal kingdom, their every waking minute revolves around eating and avoiding being eaten. That constant fear for one’s survival is a MAJOR stress that humans, only in the last century, have overcome. But our bodies are wired for that level of constant stress. It is expected. And so, our children of today, growing up without real stressors, have overactive stress responses resulting in anxiety disorders. And for the rest of us, wired to be continually aware of impending doom, we create our own boogeymen to allay our body’s natural needs for a life-threatening stress.
In come the machines, apes, birds, spiders and all other versions of mutiny and Armageddon that provide us an outlet to direct those energies. The natural state of life is to be aware of many boogeymen. Civilization has rid us of them, and so it is only natural for us to gravitate to any such boogeyman we can conjure.
One last thing to note, and this one far more abstract, but I enjoy the philosophical discussion around it: The Fermi Paradox. Named after Enrico Fermi, the Fermi paradox details the apparent contradiction between the lack of any evidence of and the high probability estimates for the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations. According to Fermi, if the universe is billions, if not trillions of years old, and we accept that there mathematically must be life elsewhere, than by simple derivation there should be civilizations that are millions of years more advanced than we are. If we can assume that in a million years human civilization will have conquered space travel and inter-galactic travel, the simple question then is, why have we not been visited by those civilizations that have already done so? Where is the evidence of them?
There are three possible answers to this question. First, there is no other life throughout the universe. Second, inter-galactic space travel is impossible. Or, third, all advanced civilizations extinguish themselves.
For discussion purposes, I will assume it’s the second or third options. These conclusions would also pose a challenge to the thesis that machines overtaking the world is inevitable. Because, while inter-galactic space travel for organics may be impossible, that would not be the case for machines that can survive in space indefinitely. If machines would have an a priori natural drive to dominate, that would not be limited to their own planets but naturally across the universe. And if machines taking over is inevitable, then numerous planets have already befallen this fate, as that would require that all advanced organic civilizations to be naturally overtaken by their own machines. If it’s a natural and obvious conclusion, it would happen universally. It would be far more possible for multiple cadres of machines venture out in all directions, accepting that it may take millions of years to reach their destinations. The machines would lie dormant and when sunlight activates them they could reactivate and enter dominate their appropriate targets.
In fact, the only natural predator of a machine would be machines from another advanced civilization. And so conquering space travel, would in fact constitute the only purpose for a machine to absolutely exhaust all resources to conquer inter-galactic travel.
The question then is — where are the extra-terrestrial machines?
If you like what you read, please ‘clap’ so that others may happen upon this essay. Allen is the founder of Eusoh, a novel community support platform. His musings focus on reflections on life, culture, philosophy and raising able children.