AI

Humans Feared Smart Robots Over a Century Before Elon Musk et al Raised the Alarm

The galloping progress in artificial intelligence has stirred up widespread public concern over unemployment and displacement. One can see however that humans have a surprisingly long history of fearing intelligent machines and their potential societal impacts.

The galloping progress in artificial intelligence has stirred up widespread public concern over unemployment and displacement. One can see however that humans have a surprisingly long history of fearing intelligent machines and their potential societal impacts.

Earlier this week, two Monash University researchers published the paper “Past Visions of Artificial Futures — One Hundred and Fifty Years under the Spectre of Evolving Machines”, a deep dive into humanity’s visions and discussions on robots — specifically self-reproducing and evolving machines — since the 1860s. The paper suggests that today’s debates about the implications of AI, such as Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking’s doomsday scenarios or Mark Zuckerberg’s enthusiasm, are actually continuing a conversation that has been going on for over 150 years.

Synced highly recommends readers interested in “AI promise and peril” discussions browse this paper. We’ve noted some highlights which illustrate how our predecessors regarded the rise of machines.

“Man will have become to the machine what the horse and the dog are to man.” — Samuel Butler

Iconoclastic British novelist and author of the fictional novel Erewhon, Samuel Butler suggested machines of the future would be human’s successors and “the acme of all that the best and wisest man can ever dare to aim at.” His bold speculation, written in a number of letters published in a local newspaper in 1863, ushered in the apprehension many continue to espouse today.

Butler also speculated that the human body’s physical capabilities would degenerate due to machines. Ultimately, the human race would enter a stage where humans and machines’ evolution became intertwined.

“Nay, further, the Machine . . . might make others like itself. We thus get hereditary and accumulated instinct. For these descendants, as they may be called, may vary slightly, owing to accidental circumstances, from the parent.” — Alfred Marshall

In his philosophical paper Ye Machine, Alfred Marshall, one of the most influential economists of his time, proposed a mechanical device equipped with sensors, effectors and circuitry could spawn sophisticated ideas and reason about its interactions with outside. Moreover, such a machine might learn to improve its actions based on positive or negative feedback, a process comparable to today’s reinforcement learning.

“I don’t know what to call these artificial workers. I could call them Labori, but that strikes me as a bit bookish.” — Karel Capek.
“Then call them Robots.” — Karef’s brother Josef Capek.

Many believe “Robot” was first applied as a term for artificial automata in the 1920 stageplay Rossum’s Universal Robots by the Czech writer Karel Čapek. The play depicts a factory where robots without feelings or reproductive capability are created to carry out low-level production. But a rogue scientist gifts them with human-like feelings such as pain and irritability, resulting in (spoiler alert) an unintended and ultimately disastrous robot rebellion.

“Even in the early days of the Twentieth Century man had stood in silent adoration around the machines that had self-produced a newspaper or a needle . . . And at that time they could no more have conceived what was to follow than the first ape that drew the sheltering branches together could foresee the dim magnificence of a cathedral dome.” — S. Fowler Wright.

S. Fowler Wright was a British science fictional writer whose short story Automata depicted a world with high-tech development where machines no longer relied on humans as they had enabled self-reproduction, and designed their own offspring. As explained in the paper, “the story views the takeover by machines as the inevitable next stage of evolution, and serves as a warning of the unpredictable long-term consequences of machine evolution.”

Not of man’s flesh, but of a better flesh, a flesh that knows no sickness, and no decay, a flesh that spends no thousands of years in advancing a step in its full evolution, but overnight leaps ahead to new heights.” — John W. Campbell.

Compared to Wright’s Automata, American science fiction writer John W. Campbell’s The Last Evolution was much more optimistic. In his story, humans co-exist with intelligent machines, and machine logic and infallibility complements human creativity.

“Normal man is an evolutionary dead end; mechanical man, apparently a break in organic evolution, is actually more in the true tradition of a further evolution.” — John Desmond Bernal.

An Irish scientist who pioneered the use of X-ray crystallography in molecular biology, John Desmond Bernal (b. 1901) wrote a monograph that put a deep focus on the evolution of humans and machines. He suggested that purely blood-and-flesh human bodies could be augmented with synthetic body parts, ie cyborgs.

Distinct from most novelists and writers of his time, Bernal’s point of view came from an interdisciplinary perspective. For example, Bernal referenced human psychology, noting that “the quite real distaste and hatred which mechanization has already brought into being” could thwart the development of synthetic human bodies.

Concerns about the impact of self-reproducing and evolving machines have historically focused on some sort of takeover by intelligent machines, implications for human evolution, and implications for human society.

Although most of the scenarios presented in the paper were imagined before computers were even invented, many still resonate in contemporary discussions on robotics and AI. The underlying warnings may even help today’s researchers think through the consequences of AI development, or at least how tech breakthroughs may be perceived by the general public.


Journalist: Tony Peng | Editor: Michael Sarazen

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