Don’t rage against the ma­chine

Wallpaper - - Editor’s Letter - Tony Cham­bers, Ed­i­tor-in-chief

One of the rea­sons that the Ja­panese have led the charge in ro­bot devel­op­ment and adop­tion is that there is no mod­ern Promethean myth in Ja­panese cul­ture, no Franken­stein’s mon­ster (that, and an age­ing pop­u­la­tion who re­quire robo-care).

In the West, we still sus­pect that gen­er­at­ing elec­tro-charged life is against na­ture and will cre­ate ex­is­ten­tial threat; that, Terminator-like, the ro­bot le­gions will even­tu­ally turn against us and pull the plug on their masters. More im­me­di­ately, we worry that they will take our jobs.

This sum­mer I at­tended the Nor­man Fos­ter Foun­da­tion’s in­au­gu­ral ‘Fu­ture is Now’ con­fer­ence in Madrid, join­ing the likes of Marc New­son, Pa­tri­cia Urquiola, Jonathan Ive, Ale­jan­dro Aravena, Michael Bloomberg, Maya Lin and more. The Stan­ford-based his­to­rian Niall Fer­gu­son saw trou­ble ahead, warn­ing of a push back against dis­rup­tive tech­no­log­i­cal change (his trans­port to the con­fer­ence, a Tesla, had been pelted with eggs by anti-uber demon­stra­tors, so per­haps he was more than usu­ally alert to the tech­no­trauma be­ing felt in cer­tain sec­tors). Nicholas Ne­gro­ponte, co-founder of the MIT Me­dia Lab, mean­while played the ul­ti­mate techno-evan­ge­list, ar­gu­ing that tech­nol­ogy is al­low­ing us to ‘do as well as na­ture’. Ul­ti­mately, he in­sisted, ‘we will do bet­ter’. (We will soon be ‘grow­ing’ build­ings from seeds, he sug­gested.) Tech­nol­ogy is, of course, caus­ing mas­sive up­heaval across many in­dus­tries, print me­dia in­cluded. For the mo­ment, though, there is still a range of creative acts that ro­bots can’t re­ally han­dle, that re­quire the hu­man hand and eye, the hu­man imag­i­na­tion, and a per­sonal his­tory, of good things and bad. The ro­bot fash­ion stylist is a way off. A ro­bot can­not repli­cate the touch and tim­ing of a great mu­si­cian, the par­tic­u­lar phras­ing of a fine nov­el­ist or play­wright, or un­der­stand how and why those phrases and phras­ing con­nect. For the mo­ment, ro­bots are good at do­ing pre­cise tasks over and over again with­out get­ting bored or ask­ing for hol­i­day pay (not pick­ing fruit just yet, but robo-pick­ers are on their way). As Jonathan Bell ex­plains in his piece that ac­com­pa­nies our ro­bot fash­ion shoot (page 206), ro­bots will be­come ever more use­ful, but we should not fear that use­ful­ness. We are bet­ter than use­ful.

There are things to worry about. We are hand­ing far too much of our de­ci­sion­mak­ing to al­go­rithms (as won­drous as Spo­tify’s Dis­cover Weekly playlist is, we need to do our own dis­cov­er­ing). Ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence will ad­vance in ways we can­not pre­dict (a par­tic­u­lar con­cern for bright sparks such as Elon Musk and Stephen Hawk­ing, among oth­ers). But for the mo­ment, we re­main the most re­mark­able of cre­ations.

Lim­ited-edi­tion cover by Nathalie Du Pasquier and George Sow­den

See our story on page 130

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