The human factor

We clicked straight away. Not a minute had passed and I knew that we had dozens of similar adventures worth writing about ahead of us. A few weeks later I could not imagine spending a day without him. Now, five years on and after everything we have been through together – with a heart as icy as hands without gloves in the January cold – I am leaving him for a younger one. Am I mean?

For that short or long (depending on how you look at it) period he was the first to see my texts and holiday snaps. He waited patiently each time I was running late. He stayed by my hospital bed. He was the first one I thought of when I needed to check the result of an important exam. Or when I had to buy a birthday cake at the very last minute. He never complained when I needed to get up in the middle of the night to travel across the country. He never protested (in fact he helped!) when I completely changed our holiday plans on a sudden whim (and due to a few glasses of port). He did not seem to understand the term ‘offended’. Even when I forgot to call in on him at Christmas. Of course, like everyone, he had his weak moments, which had recently become slightly more regular, it seemed. Then he shut me out completely. He would disappear without warning for few days. However, he always came back with his usual ‘Hello!’, ‘You cannot keep up with me,’ I teased him sometimes. But this was becoming the case more and more often. And finally the thing that my good friends warned me about a long time before was beginning to set in: memory problems. And his slow decline was irreversible. I knew this was just the beginning of a drawn-out, agonising demise. And I could not stay with him just out of sentiment. I had to harden my heart... and get a new laptop.

So far we have regarded machines – despite their omnipresence – as, well, just machines, and are aware that any ‘relationship’ with them is doomed to be asymmetrical. But the differences might soon cease to be so obvious. Machines are becoming ever faster, more efficient and more eager when it comes to learning. And the same goes for replicating our way of thinking and even our emotional behaviour. Paradoxically, although there are getting to be more and more worker robots (50 pct of the professions we know today will apparently cease to exist by 2025), they are also becoming markedly less soulless. The humanoid models can now walk not only independently but can also get up after a fall and learn from mistakes.

Self-driving machines are learning sensitivity to unexpected occurrences they come upon on their way, such as children, animals and even drunk people. It is not inconceivable that they will be able to do this better than humans in the future. Our species has already started to give ground as far as production is concerned. According to the International Federation of Robotics, in the last four years the demand for industrial robots increased twofold in the United States and as much as fourfold in China, where over one third of all such devices will be operating by 2018. The demand for service robots, including those designed for households, is also set to grow. Futurologist Ian Pearson goes a step further, claiming that over the next decade more and more robots will be used to provide “some kind of sexual activity” to people in high income households – and by 2050 sex with a robot will have become more common than intercourse between humans.

It was just another sunny November day for Sgt Miles of the California road patrol. He found out from the radio about a gridlock at El Camino Real. At the scene he came upon a Google driverless car trundling along without a care 15 km/h under the speed limit. The policeman eventually stopped the ghost car, but it is not clear whether a ticket was ever issued to the online giant, which is allowed to test its ground-breaking cars on the public roads of Mountain View. The question arises of how a machine can actually be brought to justice. And what sentences should be given to robots for human (or quasi-human) offences? An obligatory re-boot? A twenty-year exile from the net? A restraining order requiring the robot to stay away from other machines?

No matter how far they manage to drive or walk, for the foreseeable future they will not be burdened by consciences. But human programmers, supervisors and ‘digital snipers’ – the operators of combat drones, who tend to pull their triggers on different continents, will continue to be nagged by such voices in their heads. The emergence of self-learning machines makes for an interesting year ahead.