Arts & Books

‘Adapt or perish’ in a soulless tomorrow

A robot demonstrating its football skills at the RoboCup German Open in 2015 (Photo: AP)

Religion, Alec Ross suggests in his intriguing new book, plays an important part in shaping our attitudes to robots. The ancient Shinto religion, practised by four-fifths of the Japanese, includes a belief in animism, which holds that objects have spirits. This means, Ross believes, that it’s easier for the Japanese to accept robot companions than it is in the West, where we consider robots soulless machines.

The author suggests that the elderly will get to grips with this technology first, given that the biggest focus in robot companions and pets is currently aimed at what the Americans refer to as “eldercare”. These sort of observations are fun, but they also have the ring of truth, and it’s easy to see why Ross is well regarded as a futurologist, even if there is something slightly disturbing about the way he views the world largely as centres of profit to be maximised.

Ross makes much out of an early job he had cleaning up vomit while doing the night shift in a country music club in West Virginia, suggesting that it was meeting the men there who couldn’t get any other job, owing to technological changes, that shaped his futurology as much as the year he spent flying round the world with Hillary Clinton, advising her on innovation. But he’s clearly on the side of the “disrupters”, quoting HG Wells’s motto “adapt or perish” approvingly.

There’s a sense that he considers anyone who doesn’t hold the same attitude to the future to be a hick: throughout the book there is an emphasis on acquisition that occasionally blinds Ross to bigger questions of personal and corporate responsibility.

Alongside robotics, Ross’s main concerns are medicine, money, computer coding, data and geography. When approaching each area, he is mainly keen either to snuffle out areas of growth or to point out how what’s happening in each field will lead to more dramatic changes than we might currently imagine. The thesis behind much of this book is that knowledge is power. But while he accepts that in the wrong hands this knowledge might be put to malign use, his solution is more security and more control.

It is, of course, easy to understand why a man whose job is advising the American government on innovation would approve of companies such as Uber and Airbnb, and see a profitable future in Bitcoin. But his theories on how best to prepare our children for the future are rather depressing. He suggests the best way to prepare the next generation to succeed is to encourage them “to understand the opportunity in the next wave of high-growth markets”.

Asking former eBay CEO John Donahoe what sort of education he would advise for a teenager today, he gets the response: “If I were 18 right now, I would major in computer science or engineering, and I’d be taking Mandarin.” While this might be great advice for making money, it shows little regard for personal development.

But the biggest oversight in the book is the absence of any discussion of the creative industries. It’s a surprising omission, not just because there is just as much innovation going on there as in any of the other fields he discusses – especially in the distribution of film, music and television – but also because it would provide a useful corrective to the colder qualities of Ross’s reportage.

How much you get from this book may depend on your own attitude towards technology. Ross is an observer as much as an advocate, and it is his lack of anxiety about the future that makes him good at his job. But while some of his imagined future seems wholly positive – advances in cancer treatment, say – there is as much here that’s as disturbing as Philip K Dick’s most dystopian imaginings.

This article first appeared in the April 1 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To download the entire issue for free with our new app, go here