Anxiety about would-be robot overlords has reached new levels in a post Siri-world, and such an anxiety has only grown through the decades. It’s spanned three generations: from Robbie The Robot, to Hal 9000, to the Terminator, to Johnny 5—to the Terminator, again. As our own robots evolve into real machines of Jetsonian convenience, thinkers like the New York Times’ John Markoff are beginning to ask whether these machines are with us—or, one day in the near-future, they’ll be against us. But, that’s the issue if viewed through a hyperbolic lens—one that only accommodates a noisy action film.
If you’re looking at technological advancement as Markoff has within Machines of Loving Grace, consider this question: Would you rather have an intelligent GPS program help you find your destination with expedient route recommendations, or would you rather the car drive itself? Or, would you rather your surgeons perfect their incisions with technological guidance, or should the robot actually perform the operation itself? Again, that’s indulging an extreme, but it at least demonstrates the weight of Markoff’s subject and hints at how gripping his conversations with industry experts can be.
Machines of Loving Grace’s suspense isn’t a shock to modern tech users. The information within Markoff’s latest offering slow-burns toward its crescendo, like the rising drone of a movie theater’s THX sound test. Markoff’s process aims to deduce where all of this technological advancement leads—as in, how long until the controllers become the controlled? He writes, “From the Tin Man [Oz], who gains a heart and thus a measure of humanity, to the replicants [of Blade Runner] who are so superior to humanity that Deckard is ordered to terminate them, humanity’s relations to robots have become the defining question of the era.”
The debate in Markoff’s stakes-setting book involves the “quest for common ground between humans and robots.” That comes down to AI vs. IA: artificial intelligence (when a robot replaces a human) vs. intelligence augmentation (when a robot is an auxiliary assistant to a human). These “twin paths” of innovation place a “tremendous amount of power and responsibility” in the hands of two communities of designers that Markoff treats in this book: innovators like Steve Jobs who envisioned computing as a “bicycle for our minds,” while Andy Rubin’s robotics project at Google drifts towards radically advancing “an array of developments…from walking machines to robot arms and sensor technology.” It depends on how scared or delighted you are at Markoff’s summation of fantastic goals of Rubin (and Google robotics). Picture standing bipedal Google bots arriving at your home to deliver a package, like a Fitbit.
But Markoff is sensitive to this potentially dread-inducing subject by injecting a few reasonable humans into the conversation, like Google consultant Brad Templeton, who says, “a robot will be truly autonomous when you instruct it to go to work and it decides to go to the beach instead.” Most importantly, he explores the socioeconomic implications of introducing AI (or even increased amounts of IA) into everyday work and services, including delivery services, grocery stores, retail outlets, public libraries or hospitals.
We don’t have to worry, just yet, about robot overlords. But do some of us have to start worrying about our jobs? With new technology, we could be advancing ourselves out of a place in the economy—and what happens after that? That, with many other tricky ethical quandaries are contemplated by Markoff’s research and explored through dozens of interviews with designers, consultants, thinkers as well as through documentary-style history lessons shining light back upon the birth of modern computing. Markoff’s book seeks answers as to how we got here—face to synthetic face, hand to metallic hand—with these machines of loving grace.
But perhaps we should simply implore you to consider Machines with Markoff’s subtle rallying: “This is about us, about us, about humans and the kind of world we will create…It’s not about the machines.”