Robots in science fiction generally fall into two categories: helpers and killers. Helpers are programmed to facilitate the objectives of their human companions, and are typified by characters like the garbage-compactor Wall-E, the Jetsons' robotic maid Rosie, the Venture family's H.E.L.P.eR bot, or droids like C-3PO, R2-D2, and BB8.
Killers—Terminators, cylons, the machines of The Matrix—are most often sentient robots that have rebelled against their human creators and seek to replace them through violent revolution and total extermination.
While many fictional robots exist on a spectrum between these archetypes, the robo-killer trope has dominated public fears about the future threat of artificial intelligence. This month, for instance, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, along with over 100 AI ethicists, called on the United Nations to ban production of lethal autonomous weapons, or "killer robots," as the letter calls them.
Their concerns had more to do with preventing a "third revolution in warfare" than anticipating the homicidal robot takeovers we've seen countless times in fiction. That said, Musk has specifically used the language of science fiction to emphasize the stakes: "I'm afraid we are building Skynet," he said in a recent interview.
This is, of course, an important challenge to confront. Yet it may have eclipsed a subtler, more insidious danger of human replacement that has been sparked not by the killers, but by the helpers.
As the creep of automation continues to edge out a variety of occupations, from factory workers to hedge-fund managers to personal trainers to tattoo artists, the livelihoods of millions, if not billions, of humans hang in the balance. This trend of "technological unemployment," with its negative effects on wage growth and social stability, has exacerbated existing tensions within the United States and elsewhere. Despite that, policy conversations over automation have, broadly speaking, remained on the sidelines of public discourse.
Perhaps this is partly because science fiction creators have overwhelmingly presented helper robots as accepted and even desired by human society, often depicting them as luxury items rather than harbingers of poverty. If you ask someone to picture fictional killer robots, familiar faces like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tricia Helfer, or Hugo Weaving will pop up. But what famous performer do we associate with the trope of the "job-stealing" robot? We've been so electrified by dreaming up scenarios in which robots replace us with brute force that we have neglected the real ways they are already replacing us in the workforce.
In this week's Terraform, "They, We, Me," Ryan Bloom fills this imaginative gap with Adèle, an android who works the till at an upscale urban convenience store. The future he paints isn't radically apocalyptic, as with the Terminator movies, or packed with delirious techno-optimism, as with The Jetsons. In fact, it is not that different from the world we inhabit today, minus the artificial humanoids who have been integrated into the social landscape.
Androids in "They, We, Me" are programmed to "think and process and feel in precisely the same manner as humans," though their golden eye color makes them distinguishable from their "natural" peers. When employed in public professions, they are expected to change their irises to human shades to fit in. Adèle refuses to do this, exerting her newly received civil rights with the affirmation: "I'm not the one who needs to adjust."
Developed and adopted as a Sibling Android, Adèle was "designed primarily to teach and protect" her younger human brother, who narrates the story. Though there is genuine affection and respect within this mixed family, even the narrator cannot bring himself to acknowledge his sister's full personhood. It's no surprise, then, that humans who are farther removed from androids, and feel that they have been displaced by them, are hostile to android integration into the public sector.
Adèle is occasionally harassed by customers who recognize her eye color. "You know, I'm having to buy these [lottery] tickets because of you and yours," a woman tells her. "Shop work like this don't exist for us anymore—why hire a human when you can hire a bot?"
The language here eerily mirrors the xenophobic rhetoric that has been on the rise in the United States in recent years. Latinos, African-Americans, women, and immigrants are handy scapegoats to blame for "thieving" jobs from Americans who perceive themselves to be more worthy or qualified for them. In Bloom's story, androids are the next iteration of the same pattern, and predictably, Adèle's harassers blame the androids for the perceived loss of status, rather than the hiring practices of employers.
Fictional helper robots are normally depicted as buddies, foils, and comic relief to dominant human characters, not job competitors with equal employment rights. We have flattered ourselves in our portraits of robot-human partnerships, rarely considering that we could ultimately be more expendable than those we see as subordinates.
Adèle puts a humanoid face on a challenge that has largely been fed to us through images of giant machine assembly lines or advanced software programs. She represents a future we must confront as robotic systems become more influential in the labor market. While automation can greatly enhance human well-being, civil discontent and demographic resentment is likely to rise if those benefits are not evenly distributed, and the dehumanizing attitudes displayed in "They, We, Me" will find more fuel for its fire.
Most people would still rather be put out of a job by robots than put in a grave by them, so killer machines are still more likely to capture the public's imagination than their helper counterparts. That said, it's not only our incomes, but our identities, that are interlinked with our work lives. Like all science fiction stories involving robots, Bloom's tale is ultimately about what it means to be human, and whether automation stands to bring out the best in us, or the worst.
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