Mar 20, 2014

Rundle: the robots are coming, for good or ill

Spectacular advances in robotic technology are a far cry from Rosie the maid -- they can self-replicate, replace millions of workers and, most sinister of all, hunt and kill. Crikey examines the dark side of our bright future.

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle


The terrain is rough, autumn in New England, orange leaves thick on a steep hill. The creature struggles with a heavy pack, all four legs straining away, making its way upward, threading through the trees. At the plateau, someone gives it a swift kick in the side and it tumbles sideways, staggering, pivoting, compensating for the blow, one leg crossing back across the other, balletic, elegant. Balanced again, the creature would, to assess its surroundings, hold its head up — if it had a head. Instead there’s just a space where that should be, because the creature is a “BigDog” robot, symmetrical in either direction, designed to mimic the motion, balance and fluidity of an animal with the relentlessness of a machine.


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8 thoughts on “Rundle: the robots are coming, for good or ill

  1. Frank

    It’s hard not to imagine that robot picking itself up, turning slowly towards the kicker, and then extracting some sort of terrible relentless revenge.

  2. Richard

    Fascinating, thanks Guy.

  3. Chris Hartwell

    @Frank – really? I get more the impression of a dog wondering why its human kicked it when all it wants to do is be the best dog it can be for its human.

  4. Lasso

    Good article Guy – save the reference to Adam Smith. I wouldn’t quite say Smith ‘celebrated’ the division of labour, as he seemingly wavered on its social implications within the same text – deliberating upon the ‘mental mutilation’ such division can effect on its workers – although you rarely hear the provisos on any celebrated economic theory in general discourse.
    I also think the jobs front is safe from robots, in general and in the near term – so long as companies still need people to have money in order to buy their products… The bigger worry is what these robots will enable their operators to be capable of and how ‘mutilated’ future jobs may be…

  5. Plonkoclock

    I recall reading a SF short story – it may have been Asimov -about a lunar war, where the enemy forces deployed small, rapidly moving multi-legged robots armed with explosives towards their objectives. They moved en masse, erratically, side to side, back and forth but inexorably towards their target. Terrifying.

  6. Scott Grant

    I remember back in the fifties and sixties, pontificating futurologists were worried about all the “leisure” time we would all be getting, as increasing automation took away the need for us to work long hours.

    Of course the reality is quite different. Many of us with jobs seem to be working longer and harder, while as Guy says, there is “a growing “surplus” population (that) has been hidden by various statistical manoeuvres — and is now being actively persecuted and demonised.”.

    No, Lasso, companies are not going to employ people just so they have a market for their products. Welcome to the plutocracy, where the market is increasingly dominated by the wealthy minority.

  7. Bob the builder

    Fascinating article, but a quibble.

    ‘Robota’ isn’t the Czech word for worker, rather a word meaning ‘slave work, drudgery’. The root word is common across all the Slavic languages, for instance in Russian meaning merely ‘work’ (работа / robota), whereas worker would be (работник / rabotnik).

    Interesting too, that the word ‘Slav’ descends from ‘slave’ the common fate of the Slavic peoples under the Romans, but I digress….

    Point being, ‘robot’ is by no means a new concept, merely the mechanical version of an ancient practice. People as ‘robots’ is just the same old … slavery.

  8. Humphrey Bower

    Brilliant Guy. The crux of the matter as you point out and others have picked up on is the decreasing circulation of capital with the advance of self-replicating atomisation, and the challenge this presents to capitalism (Marx’s old theory of crisis rears its grizzled head again!). The dystopian vision of an increasing divide between the haves and have-nots (enforced by robots) is a short-term ‘solution’ (currently underway). In the long-term though (and perhaps sooner than we think) it’s the environmental sustainability of capitalism and the planet itself that will break the circuit. No matter how rapidly renewable technology (in both senses of the word ‘renewable’) advances and changes the economy, in the end we’re all going to have to change the way we live: consumption along with production and exchange. Welcome to the world of a sustainable economy, in which robots and additive manufacture like the internet and other technological innovations will ultimately find their place. The alternative I guess is the colonisation of outer space. But I don’t think there’ll be time for that. The ones who can afford to go will be the haves anyway, leaving the rest of us to watch them on reality TV or wish them good riddance and get on with things down here. Best, Humphrey

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