Note — Oct 25, 2020

Disassembly Required

Seen in → No.147

Source →

This is the article where I realize that I’ve linked to Real Life very often, in almost 10% of issues!! But what can I say, stellar stuff coming out of there. This time with Kelly Pendergrast looking at robots (and AI), how they are presented, anthropomorphized, and often made friendly, and explaining that under this surface presentation and these mechanics and algorithm, it’s plain old for profit companies following the imperatives of capitalism and using these robots to eek out more profit, monitor humans, and eventually remove them.

Three things to note: 1) This article is not the most fragrant example but it is adjacent to something I’ve pointed to a few times; writing about a large phenomenon / field of tech / capitalism like it has intent (in this case the anthropomorphic representation of robots), where I just see a sequence of independent decisions. See after the Asides for a bit more on this.

2) I loved the framing for the “actually-existing AI-capitalism,” (from Nick Dyer-Witheford and his co-authors Atle Mikkola Kjøsen and James Steinhoff) to represent the fact that true AI isn’t here but is being used as if it were, and already “holds a lot of power as an imaginative framework for reorganizing and reconceptualizing labor.”

3) Finally, the idea of the robot teammate, “putting a friendly surface between the customer or worker or user and the underlying function of the technology.” Is roughly the same thing as the idea of jobs below the API which was used quite a bit a few years ago when gig work started appearing. Abstracting humans from the interface, giving consumers access to that hidden labour in a “clean” package. Important concept.

Certainly we needn’t be compelled by the cuteness of the HitchBot or the malevolent gait of the Boston Dynamics biped. Instead, we should learn to see the robot for what it is — someone else’s property, someone else’s tool. And sometimes, it needs to be destroyed. […]

While these systems still require plentiful human labor, “AI” is the magic phrase that lets us accept or ignore the hidden labor of thousands of poorly paid and precarious global workers — it is the mystifying curtain behind which all manner of non-automated horrors can be hidden. […]

By putting anthropomorphic robots — too cute to harm, or too scary to mess with — between us and themselves, bosses and corporations are doing what they’ve always done: protecting their property, creating fealty and compliance through the use of proxies that attract loyalty and deflect critique. […]

Instead of emancipating the “living” robot, perhaps the robot could be repurposed in order to emancipate us, the living.