Humans have long held an uneasy alliance with technology — a fascination commingled with suspicion — gratitude tinged with resentment. Technology, after all, has an extraordinary capacity to make human life safer, happier, and more convenient. And yet technology also reminds us of our profound limitations, our intellectual shortcomings, our physical frailties, and our mortality.
The trajectory of the love/hate relationship humanity has cultivated with the technology it has created can be traced through the media. Pop culture, in particular, exemplifies and encapsulates how public perceptions of technology have evolved over time.
Our Robot Overlords
Perhaps nothing in modern pop culture more definitively illuminates the profound fear of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) that pervaded the public consciousness in the final decades of the twentieth century than the Blade Runner series.
Briefly stated, the movie series depicts the conflict between natural humans and synthetic humanoids created by a faceless, amoral, and breathtakingly powerful tech corporation. Synthetic humanoids, known in the series as Replicants, are smarter, stronger, and faster than their human counterparts. They are also limited by neither emotions nor morals nor physical constraints of pain or endurance.
The ongoing and merciless battle between humans and Replicants reflects early fears of the long-term ramifications of technological advances that could potentially overrun human power, particularly when these advances are not mitigated by either feelings or ethics.
The Blade Runner series presaged a host of iconic science fiction books, films, and television series, such as Terminator — each of which played upon the same theme of inevitable conquest by intelligent, but soulless, robotic overlords.
Familiarity Does Not Breed Contempt
Depictions of robotics and AI technologies in popular culture have evolved significantly since the angst-ridden early days of the first Blade Runner film. Much of this evolution, no doubt, can be attributed to the sheer proliferation of these technologies across virtually all domains of daily life.
Indeed, AI technologies are now ubiquitous in the modern workplace, fulfilling roles that would have once seemed impossible — roles that require not only technical or physical skill but also a kind of emotional intelligence. For instance, through machine learning (ML), AI systems are proving highly effective in job recruitment, helping to ensure that the right candidates are matched to the right employer and job role, and in the process, supporting the happiness and success of the employer and employee alike.
Likewise, AI technologies, such as chatbots, are fulfilling similarly nurturing roles in the healthcare industry. Bots are increasingly being used in healthcare to minimize the harmful impacts of the physician shortage by facilitating patient screening and triage.
In addition, through the technology’s extraordinary capacity for accessing and analyzing massive quantities of data in mere seconds, chatbots and related AI systems are assisting clinicians in providing rapid and accurate diagnoses and personalized, evidence-based treatment plans.
This proliferation of robots and AI in diverse “caring” roles — from human resources to healthcare — has precipitated a general softening of public attitudes toward such technologies. This, too, can be seen in popular films such as Bicentennial Man, in which an android designed for domestic service over time spontaneously develops the capacity for creative innovation, independent thought, and human emotion, including the very human desire for freedom, love, and relationships.
The breathtaking speed of tech innovation today is increasingly blurring the boundaries between human and machine. For instance, recent breakthroughs in signal processing speeds are enabling researchers to explore the possibility that machines could be powered and controlled by the human mind.
This means that people who have been catastrophically injured or who are experiencing debilitating diseases may regain the ability to move, speak, and exert and express their will and consciousness through a machine attuned to their thoughts.
Such research is mirrored in science fiction works that no longer express fear over the superior capacities of robots, but rather present them as the ideal solution to limitations of the human mind and body. Films such as A.I. Artificial Intelligence, for instance, envision intelligent and sensitive robots as the inevitable heirs of human civilization, as the next stage in the evolution of human and post-human life.
These technologies, in other words, promise to redeem and rebuild a world destroyed by humans, enduring even after human-driven climate change has eradicated most other biological species, including humankind. Conceptualized in this way, the superior capacities of intelligence robots do not recapitulate humans’ baser instincts to conquer and exploit. but rather, they build upon humanity’s nobler impulses to leave the world better than they found it.
We live in the great age of technology, but that does not mean that humans have always welcomed or celebrated the role of innovation in daily life. The evolution of the public perception of AI and other highly advanced technologies can be traced through popular media — from the angst-ridden Blade Runner series to the more hopeful and idealistic representations of intelligent robots in films such as Bicentennial Man and A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. We can only hope that these changes in public perception of AI and related technologies have the potential to shape a better world for the ordinary lives of average citizens.
Categories: Geeks and Nerds Stuff