Cybernetics

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From evil computers such as HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), to romantic creations like Samantha in Spike Jonze’s film Her (2013), artificial intelligence has gained popularity in today’s film and entertainment industry. With developments in modern cybernetics — the understanding of how information signals and messages work within systematic boundaries — society’s fear of domination by machines has grown significantly. Many people are concerned about how much influence computers and artificial intelligence will have on future society, as our current levels of reliance are growing exponentially.

There are many reasons why humans feel threatened by the rise of computers. This fear became intertwined with the backlash against the rise of corporate culture and business interests as well as post-war industrialization. This came to prominence in the 1960s when many people began to adopt countercultural lifestyles in reaction to world conflicts, such as the Vietnam War. “Cybernation” became a popular term used to describe the growing control of management over workers in the sixties. This loss of power among workers is analogous to how machines displaced factory workers during the first industrial revolution from 1760 to 1840. While the introduction of mechanical labour during this period devalued manual labour, the increasing sophistication of computers in our modern industrial revolution is threatening to replace human intelligence. Mathematician Norbert Wiener predicted this shift in his seminal book entitled Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. The modern industrial revolution is similarly bound to devalue the human brain (at least involving simple and routine decision making).

There is a shared fear of machines taking over human jobs. In a study sponsored by the Pew Research Center, 48 percent of over 2,500 experts – individuals who identified themselves as builders of the online world and those who closely followed technology trends — envisioned a future in which robots and digital agents displace significant numbers of workers. One of the panel’s main concerns was the effect of automated workforces on unemployment. With robots beginning to replace humans in the workplace, there are many ethical implications to consider. If a worker is replaced by a machine, will there be financial compensation for them? Will they be relocated to a new position or left to find a new job elsewhere? Wiener also wants to know when computers will be able to replace white-collar jobs, such as doctors, lawyers, or other professionals.

The reality of an automated workforce is fast-approaching. Foxconn — the world’s largest electronics contract manufacturer — has employed over one million workers in China. In 2011, the company installed 10,000 robots — called “Foxbots” — to spray down, weld and assemble electronics in their factories. In a 2013 interview with Foxconn CEO Terry Gou, he claimed the company would be adding one million robot workers in the future. This practice has been adopted by companies worldwide, including Amazon, Tesla, and many others as businesses shift towards more efficient methods of assembly and automation.

Our society is already heavily reliant on automated systems, from reminder systems on business networks to health-tracking apps on our phones and wearable technologies. The worry of being rendered useless by computers stems from the fear of losing control; with robots and other automated systems replacing jobs and controlling every aspect of our lives, humans will be no longer be in control. This future may not be too far away.