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Discussion | Rise of The Robots? Humans and Machines in the New Century

11/16 Wednesday | 7am

We are witnessing a surge of anxiety about robots: Will they displace humans in the workplace and condemn us to mass idleness; and worse still, guided by their own artificial intelligence, will they become our rivals or even enemies?  The Institute for Public Knowledge invites you to a lunchtime lecture and conversation on these themes from author Simon Head. Sociologist Harvey Molotch will serve as discussant.

The lecture will examine the above claims, posited by the likes of Martin Ford, Bill Gates, and Stephen Hawking, with a very skeptical eye, pivoting on the distinction between physical and virtual robots. Physical robots resemble humans to varying degrees and perform in their entirety tasks once performed by us (for example robots doing welding and paint work on an assembly line); virtual robots have no physical presence because they are software programs embedded in computers. With virtual robots there is a vast grey area – customer service, human resource management, health care, financial services, higher education and more – where robots can indeed perform the tasks assigned to them, but do so, Head argues, in ways that fall far short of human best practice and still rely on human managerial and technical input. In the eyes of corporate management, the deficiencies of virtual robots can be more than offset by the economic benefits they are thought to bring with them: above all, a smaller, more productive, yet lower skilled and lower paid human workforce, compensated for by the robots’ ‘artificial intelligence’. But, following philosopher John Searle, Head asks whether this robotic AI really exists at all. If it does not, are we in fact simply dealing with human managerial intelligence, with all its flaws and biases, simply transposed to a different setting?

Simon Head is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Public Knowledge at NYU, a Senior Member of St Antony’s College, Oxford. He is also a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and Director of Programs at the New York Review of Books Foundation.

Harvey Molotch is Professor of Sociology and Metropolitan Studies at New York University, where he conducts research on power relations in urbanism, design, and media. His many well-known books include Against Security, Urban Fortunes (with John Logan), and Where Stuff Comes From, among others.

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