Sometimes, I forget I am an animal. Carried away with my ability to think, to calculate and analyse, to plan and strategise, I forget that I have a body with its own urges and needs, its own intelligence and ways of experiencing the world. I forget to honour my body’s need to move, to breathe deeply, to curl up with another warm body, to light a fire and stare into the flames, to feel the wind and rain on my skin, to fool around.
In my forgetful state, I take pride in telling myself I have escaped my attachment to these urges. I am organised, clever and rational, I reassure myself. Then, inevitably, I chastise myself when I fall from my ideal. I curse what I label as my “unreliability”, my refusal to conform to the dictates of my thoughts and plans, or to mould myself into an economic production unit that is successful in the eyes of society.
It is a losing battle I am fighting. I wasn’t born to be a machine and there’s an essential part of myself I can never control. As I get older, I start to appreciate this, and to be grateful for the wild, animal part of me, learning to trust and accept it. Without it, I wouldn’t be fully human. In fact it gives me great joy to accept that I’m human and not a machine and that I have a living body and soul that are designed for far more than earning a living.
This question, I believe, is rapidly becoming far from just an idle thought or an abstract discussion. The robots are coming! In a recent book, “The Rise of the Robots”, author Martin Ford describes the rapid progress made in the last few decades in artificial intelligence, robot technology and nanotechnology. He argues that machines are becoming so capable that very soon millions of jobs will simply disappear because robots will be able to do things better, cheaper and more reliably than humans can. This is not just jobs on the assembly line. If a machine can have access to enormous quantities of data and can process it almost instantaneously, people who rely on their memory (such as doctors trying to diagnose something unusual, or lawyers processing information), or who are asked to produce something reliably (like people in the kitchen of fast food restaurants), to name but a few, are likely to come off second best. Some are even predicting that machines will, within a generation, become more intelligent than humans – an event they call “the Singularity”.
For many, this is a scary prospect. The potential consequences include mass unemployment, reduced human to human contact and greater inequality as the rich control the machines and use them to exploit others for their own gain. If we view robots as competition for human jobs, we are in for a fearful competition, one that we are likely to lose.
Yet there’s a different way of seeing this. After all, machines might take over work that is essentially boring and unworthy of human effort. Cleaning, driving a car, processing information – there must be more to life than this. What advances could we make if many of us were freed up from the day-to-day slog of repetitive or meaningless work? There are certainly a lot of jobs that are unnecessary and unworthy of human dignity – anthropology professor and author David Graeber calls them “bullshit jobs“. Why fight to preserve them?
Rather than responding to these developments by trying to be more robot-like ourselves, rather than striving vainly to be something we are not and blaming ourselves for our constant “failures”, let’s recognise the opportunity to reclaim our humanity. Being unpredictable and fallible is an essential part of being human. We are sensitive and responsive to our environment, in ways that machines can never be. This sensitivity to our environment is something we need to embrace, not reject.
“You don’t have to be good” poet Mary Oliver reminds us in her poem “Wild Geese” “you only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves….”
So let’s not fear the rise of the robots. Let’s seize the chance to reclaim our heritage, to stand up and proclaim to all:
“I am human, and that means I am beauty, joy, wonder, creativity, peace and love. I’m also pain and suffering, loss and sorrow. I am connected to all of life. I am not an imperfect machine – I am a perfect human being!”