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Have you ever read Rossum’s Universal Robots?  It is a Czech play from 1921 which introduced the word “robot” to describe a synthetic/machine person manufactured through a state-of-the-art process.  Since the play anteceded the great glut of mid-twentieth century sci-fi/fantasy novels and movies, it does not partake of their familiar narratives of futurism and high adventure, but rather is a brooding meditation on class, alienation, industrialization, and the post-human world.  Rossum’s Universal Robots treats its subject with the solemn dark intensity which Mary Shelley and Kafka brought to these same questions about what it means to be human and to try to pass one’s fundamental values on to one’s offspring.   

I am not asking this question out of idle curiosity (although I am curious if anyone read RUR), but rather as a means for reintroducing our old friend–and occasional guest blogger–Daniel Claymore.  Claymore, an LA-based writer & director, has just published Requiem for a Good Machine, his own science-fiction work about robots replacing humankind.  In Claymore’s sparkling yet chilly future megalopolis, Mirabilis, wise robot masters have built and maintain a perfect paradise habitat for humankind…because natural humans are failing and going extinct.  Some unknown pathology has sapped organic people of their well-known drive to multiply and gobble up all available resources.  The sad spectacle of hauntingly familiar near-future humans barely stumbling through the forms in a world which has lost its purpose makes up the backdrop of Claymore’s series.  But don’t worry, this isn’t Rossum’s Universal Robots and humankind isn’t quite out of the game yet…the protagonist, Leo Song, is a classic gumshoe who will do whatever it takes to get to the bottom of a mystery.  And there are mysteries aplenty in Claymore’s novel.

As a human cop in a world where robots solve 99% of all crimes within instants (and make up all the top echelons on the police force—and every other authority-wielding body), Song has his work cut out for him trying to unravel a string of gruesome murders which the robots have not solved.  Also, even if the robot masters do not know who or what is committing these ghastly crimes, they certainly know a lot of things which they aren’t telling Officer Song. 

Like a Dashiell Hammett sleuth, Song must bend all the rules and take terrifying risks to figure out what is going on (his sad oxygen gun is painful but not-very-effective to humans and does nothing at all to robots).  Pursuing this case will take him to the inner sanctum of artificial intelligence, and out to the gritty edges of Mirabilis where the robots haven’t applied any glitter (and where non-conformist humans and trans-humans still have their own agendas).

The most compelling part of Claymore’s work deals with the robots themselves.  At first these characters seem like utterly inhuman constructs of tubes, wires, and abstract shapes.  Yet as we get to know them through Song’s eyes, their humanity starts to become apparent to us (in both good ways and bad).  Likewise, the question of who ripped apart an expectant young mother starts to seem like a subset of the larger questions about what is going on behind the scenes in Mirabilis and how humankind and the robots have gotten to this place to begin with.     

Claymore’s work is a taut thriller which will delight all lovers of action and mystery.  However, the deeper roots of this work tunnel down into flintier bedrock. The dark lights of Mirabilis reflect today’s world of climate crisis, political stalemate, and ever-quickening waves of future shock.  Above all else, the characters’ anomie, loneliness, and meaningless “make-work” jobs reflect the recent pandemic and the pointless nature of our empty economy.   

If Karel Čapek stepped out of 1921 into today, he would not recognize anything, yet he would recognize everything.  The same human drives and industrial alienation shape a world where technology grows tantalizingly close to consciousness. Daniel Claymore has reached into this morass and pulled out a glistening, squirming mass of naked wires and raw emotions which he throws in your face.  You’re going to love Requiem for a Good Machine, but even if you don’t, the algorithms will think you did!

Hmm…uh oh
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Yesterday Ferrebeekeeper described the Luddite movement, an anti-technology workers’ revolt which occurred near the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The revolt centered on the idea that labor-saving machines destroy jobs, a concept which economists decry as the “Luddite fallacy.” Most Neoclassical economists believe that, even if machines cause job losses in certain industries, such losses are more than offset by the attendant fall in prices for consumers.  The history of the world since the beginning of the industrial revolution has borne this idea out, as more and more goods have become available to wider and wider markets.  The history of first world nations reflects a sort of anti-Luddite narrative:  farmers are not needed to plough the lands because of greater agricultural productivity so they go to work in factories.  Factories then become more productive thanks to machines and cheap competition so the factory workers become tertiary sector employees.  The tertiary sector consists of service jobs where employees do not necessarily make or produce anything tangible but instead offer support, experience, or knowledge—for example nurses, lawyers, waste-disposal professionals, casino employees, courtesans, financiers and such like (some economists posit that there is a quaternary sector of scientists, professors, computer geniuses, artists, and bloggers—the creative sector—but we needn’t get into that here).

Industrial Robots installed at Kia Motors' Slovakian plant by Hyundai Heavy Industries

Since the dawn of the Industrial era, this progression has worked admirably for creating economic progress.  And, during that time, machines have been constantly improving.  Whereas the horseless carriage once put horses, hostlers, and livery stables out of work but provided automakers with jobs, then robot arms and mechanized welding units came along to supplant those auto-workers.  The displaced autoworkers all had to go out and become radiologists, actuaries, sex-workers, and restaurateurs.  Now, however, machines are becoming sophisticated enough to invade the tertiary sector.  Subtle computer programs are proving superior to trained (overworked) radiologists at finding the tiniest nascent tumors.  Accountants are being replaced by Turbo-tax and Quickbooks. Weird Japanese scientists have built robots which…um make sushi and pour drinks. It seems like this trend is going to gobble up a great many service jobs in the near future from all strata of society.

A world where machines are able to replace white-collar workers would mean the hollowing out of the middle class.  The international corporations and plutocrats making software, robots, and automated factories would become extravagantly rich while the rest of would have to struggle to find niches the machines haven’t taken over. A huge economic slump would grip the developed world–as average consumers became unable to buy the goods turned out by those factories.  Hmm, that seems awfully familiar.

"But the Roomba is my friend."

So are the Luddites finally correct?  Should we go out and smash our computers and Roombas? Well… it isn’t like we can stop what we are doing.  To move forward in science and manufacturing we are going to need better thinking machines.  At some point these machines will be better at thinking then we are…and they will also be better than us at making machines.  That point will be the technological singularity and it seems that we are on that path, unable to turn back.  Perhaps we will end up with a race of omniscient omnipotent servants (yay!).  Perhaps we will combine with machines and become mighty cyborgs.  Perhaps we will end up as housepets or as a mountain of skulls the robots walk on and laugh at.  I don’t know.  Nobody does. Yikes! How did this essay about a nineteenth century protest movement take us to this destination?

Welcome to Utopia--Beep!

In the mean time, it would be useful if people would talk more about what we want from our technology and how we can get there.  The fact that having better machines is currently splitting society into some dysfunctional Edwardian plutocracy is disquieting.  It means we are not thinking hard enough or using our imaginations.  We should start doing so now…while we are still allowed to!

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