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There is much talk and fear about artificial intelligence (AI) and the use of robotics and robots in everyday work — particularly in the fields of hospitality, retail, warehousing, and manufacturing. Concerns of robots supplanting human workers and threats of sentient machines viewing humanity as a plague to be eradicated run rampant. Does the title “I, Robot” or the phrase “Three Laws of Robotics,” both the brainchild of Isaac Asimov, ring a bell? As someone with a few years under my belt, I can recall it vividly.
My adolescence and young adulthood were marked by an insatiable appetite for the genre of science fiction — a preference that still finds a home in my heart. The works of Asimov, Heinlein, Bradbury, Orwell, L. Sprague de Camp, and many others adorn my bookshelves. Frayed copies of “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” “The Martian Chronicles,” “Fahrenheit 451,” “Childhood’s End,” “A Canticle for Leibowitz,” “The Day of the Triffids,” “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” and many others occupy the shelf adjacent to my bed. In the minds of many of my contemporaries, these titles painted daunting pictures of a potential future.
Friend or fiend?
In 2014, a non-fictional work by Nick Bostrom, “Superintelligence; Paths, Dangers, Strategies,” climbed the ranks to become a New York Times’ bestseller. Its hypothesis was that AI, if mishandled, could pose an existential threat surpassing any previously witnessed technological danger — including the threat of nuclear weaponry. It argued that careless development could lead humanity down a path to self-destruction.
To my relief, none of these dire “forecasts” have come to fruition yet. That said, we seemed to brush uncomfortably close to the Orwellian dystopia of Nineteen Eighty-Four, marked by “Newspeak” and “alternative facts” emanating from a White House press secretary a few years ago.
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In 2018, I had the unique opportunity to encounter R1-B1, affectionately known as “Robbie”, a robotic bartender based out of a restaurant in Canada. A truly endearing character, Robbie was capable of intelligent conversation and even displayed a knack for light-hearted banter and “flirting” with his female patrons. The image of Robbie behind his bar was taken in the quiet afternoon hours before the establishment opened for business, hence the absence of customers.
Robbie was a gifted mixologist, deftly crafting a variety of superb cocktails. He prepared an impeccable vodka martini for me, shaken not stirred, “holding the fruit” in response to the order. In a playful gesture, he brandished an olive on a toothpick as his interpretation of this.
Considering this was before the dawn of modern AI, it’s likely that a hidden operator wirelessly manipulated Robbie, using CCTV to monitor and respond to the bar’s activities. The interaction was imbued with a good dose of humor, which made it all the more delightful.
Initially, Robbie’s novelty brought in a flood of intrigued customers and the restaurant was teeming with life. However, as the allure began to fade — so did the patronage — revealing the restaurant’s shortcomings in culinary expertise. In Eastern Canada, the survival of a restaurant heavily relies on its menu’s merit.
The establishment started off strong with an exceptional chef de cuisine, but her successor was less competent and more interested in self-promotion than in culinary excellence. Eventually, the restaurant shut its doors.
This leads me to believe that the complete replacement of humanity by AI may not be on the immediate horizon. While some short-sighted businesses might attempt to substitute human workforce with AI, I remain skeptical about such a sweeping transition happening anytime soon.
Of course, perhaps I’m mistaken, or perhaps not. After all, I don’t have a crystal ball and I’m not a prophet. But I have great trust in humanity’s adaptability and strength in overcoming its fears.
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