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, 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 decision making 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.
Tony Chambers, Editor-in-Chief