We're Scared of Robots Because We're Scared of Humans

Fear can't hide forever.
October 28, 2015, 12:00pm
Image: Flickr/Corey M. Grenier

Halloween is for celebrating the dark things that lurk at the corners of our subconscious—ghosts and ghouls, vampires and poltergeists. But in the pantheon of spookiness, there's an outlier. It is a fear that doesn't quite fit in, because it's of something we encounter now every day: a machine.

Often, this fear comes across a bit like an updated version of Godwin's law; whenever a new video of Boston Dynamics' lumbering, humanoid Atlas robot or a tightly choreographed drone swarm is released, a frantic mention of SkyNet, often accompanied by too many exclamation marks, is never far behind.

Sometimes, this fear takes on occult dimensions; Elon Musk, a brilliant business person, has invoked pentagrams and demonic forces in describing it. For almost a century, in fact, pop culture has bombarded us with fearful stories about machines usurping their masters—about the tension between master and slave. It is a fear so old that it can't be borne of impending doom.

Perhaps, then, it isn't robots that we fear, but the all too human anxiety these proxies and avatars stand for: the consequences of capitalism. Deep down, we fear that those who are crushed, maimed, harried and abused in order to sustain our lifestyles under capitalism will one day assert their basic humanity, so far emphatically denied, in a startlingly violent way.

And because "superintelligent" AI is still mere fantasy and fiction—the stuff of blockbusters—that makes it the perfect avenue for us to project our worst fears.

There is a word for the fear I'm proposing, this bubbling up of displaced anxiety: the uncanny. It is an idea—often attributed to Sigmund Freud—that can describe the sense of discomfort one feels when looking at an object that seems a little too lifelike. Think of futurist and entrepreneur Martine Rothblatt's BINA48 robot, built to resemble Rothblatt's wife, or Tom Hanks' infamously eerie CGI avatar in 2004's The Polar Express, for example.

However, this interpretation of the "uncanny" is exactly what Freud argued against in a 1919 essay. Instead, Freud argues, the feeling of uncanniness stems from the unwelcome return of that which is mentally repressed via a seemingly unrelated avatar. For capitalists, it is the lived reality of the worker that is repressed—and hence, uncanny.

For a basic and much-discussed example of how the reality of workers is repressed, we only need to look to the goods we consume. They appear on store shelves, and the human labour spread out across space and time that went into their construction is not readily apparent. Instead, an abstract thing—a price tag—stands in its place. We fixate on that, instead of the nature of the work that lies behind it.

There are other methods for capitalists to repress the reality of the worker, and not all of them are so abstract. Murder, physical and mental abuse, for example, are other tools readily at hand in many parts of the world. Automation and robots themselves, of course, are another. Workers in China are being explicitly threatened by their bosses, more and more, with replacement by AI and robots if they continue to gum up the production process with revolt and resistance.

We work very hard to shield ourselves from the monstrous reality of the economic and social system that maintains the lifestyles of the global elite. We push it down, ignore it, hide it, attempt to destroy or displace it, as much as we can. But we cannot escape it.

The rise of the machines, then—a conveniently inhuman formulation of the tragically human consequences of capitalist production for workers, and their eventual revolt—makes for an ideal fantasy through which the uncanny anxiety of capitalism can express itself.

To understand why we are really afraid of superintelligent robots, then, we must look at the material conditions of our present age and see the hysteria around artificial intelligence as a response. Those which capitalist production renders invisible are rising with vengeful intent. At first, only in dreams—in fiction—and next, in nightmarish reality.

When we say we are afraid of robots, this is what we really mean.