Robots – will they make us lazy?

boris bikesI suppose I could rephrase this with ‘robots (machines) are making us lazy.’  Machines have and are increasingly ensuring that, in the west at least, fewer and fewer of us have jobs/lives that entail hard, or even moderately hard manual labour.  Now I’m not suggesting that’s a bad thing.  However, it is, at least is partially, responsible for a population that is overweight, with all the health issues that brings with it.  I know there are many other factors such as the amount of food, particularly processed food, that is available to us and I know this is a developed world phenomenon.  But if you think about it, the increasingly mechanised world we live in is also driving that, making things easier and cheaper i.e. in real terms we can have whatever we want, whenever we want it, at relatively cheaper prices than in the past, which in part leads to increasing consumption.

Then in our modern world there is less need to physically move, to go anywhere, to get what we want.  We don’t even have to walk down the high street.  We can order food, clothes, anything from the comfort of our favourite armchair or sofa.  And all that is only set to increase.  Ironically, what do some of us do then?  We use machines to help us exercise to stay fit.  I have an exercise bike and go to a spinning class every week.  It’s bizarre when you think about it that machines deprive of us of the need for physical labour (exercise) then we replace that physical labour with machines that make us exercise.

But, for me, worse than the physical effects with ever increasing intelligent machines is the potential to make us intellectually lazy.  In something as simple as choosing a book to read, amazon now bombards me with what it thinks I might like, based on past experience.  However, in showing me everything in my ‘genre’ it’s actually depriving me of choice.  I don’t have to browse anymore, making it less likely I will experiment outside my ‘genre’.  My on-line food shopping does the same.  What’s more I can only see this increasing.  In the background of our lives automatic analysis of everything we do is only going to grow.  At the moment if I want to change my car insurance, or energy supplier I can go onto web sites compare and choose, but how long before they are using my data and selecting the ‘best’ for me without any participation on my part.  Now in many ways I can see the advantages in this, but you can also see my point about it making us intellectually lazy.

My science fiction mind is already leaping ahead to a point where nearly all our choices are made for us.  Dating web sites already offer to choose your perfect partner for you, so maybe even this aspect of our lives may be controlled by machines.

modern timesNow we think of robots and machines as saving us from all those boring menial and physical tasks.   But what I think is creeping up on us are machines, that as they become more and more intelligent will do our thinking for us as well.  It’s not the machine takeover that science fiction normally imagines, the doomsday scenario of The Matrix.  It’s more insidious than that.  We may not even realise the full scope of what’s happening until it is too late.   In many ways this ties into my last blog ‘why need space exploration’ i.e. providing something that might give the human race a much needed intellectual stimulus, even if it’s the machines that will take us there.

Don’t get me wrong I’m no Luddite.  I love gadgets and the idea of robots and intelligent machines, what they can do for us and where they might take us.  We just need to be aware of what that might mean and the associated potential downsides.

As always comments and ideas are welcome.

Ian Martyn

Author: Ian Martyn

Science Fiction Writer

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