This is a speech I gave last night, as the Junior Research Fellow in Artificial Intelligence, at a Homerton dinner themed around the Roaring ’20s in celebration of entering the 2020s.
Welcome to the Roaring ’20s.
There have been approximately 21 decades we could call the ’20’s – depending on whether you think Popes are worth listening to or not on matters of timekeeping. But only one ’20s is commonly called ‘roaring’ for its exuberance and joi de vivre.
On this VERY day in 1920 the last meeting of the Paris Peace Conference took place, and while negotiations and treaties continued to be put in place over the course of the next decade, for many the 1920s – the roaring 20s – kicked off with this moment of hopeful restitution after what many came to think of as the first-ever ‘world war’.
Coming fast on the heels of 1920 was a decade of growth and prosperity. Drinks were downed – even during the Prohibition in America – and hemlines shot up.
Deferred spending led to a boom in construction, a boom in credit, and a boom in consumer goods. Electricity, cars, movies, planes… everyone moving faster and faster, and not just while dancing the Charleston.
After the sadness of World War 1, Jazz burst on the scene to break the apparent rules of music and to bring together people of different ethnicities and sexualities in underground clubs. Authors wrote about fabulous parties and pretended that they’d gone to them. Quantum physics turned up to make everything weird before it would cut down the cat population in 1935. Or not. Bright Young Things dropped out of Cambridge (and the Other Place) – possibly after they had popularised the ‘bring your own bottle party’. And women’s Suffrage advanced – for some.
But, the ‘roaring’ was eventually quietened.
In 1929, the flamboyance and frivolity came to a crashing end as a bubble of excessive speculation and complex world-wide debt burst violently, sending everyone into a new decade characterised by financial and emotional depression.
Here, at the beginning of a new ’20s, we need to think about whether this decade should roar like its 100-year-old namesake, or whether we should learn from the excesses and acceleration of previous Bright Young Things to tread more warily through the next ten years.
Now, I assume that I have been invited to speak to you today because artificial intelligence is one of those things that we have been expecting to be a part of ‘THE FUTURE’ for a long while. Along with flying cars, jetpacks, and our alien neighbours, AI is another not-quite-here-yet treasure, or terror, that could just be around the corner, in the world of tomorrow.
Throughout the 20th century, writers have imagined what the wonderful world of the 21st century would look like. To many people, any year starting with ‘20’ appeared as inherently fantastical and futuristic. It certainly did to me as well when I was younger. The year 2000 was ‘the future’ in more than just the chronological sense.
I’m assuming that most of you weren’t actually born in time to welcome in the new millennium on 31st December 1999. So, very few of you could have genuinely partied like its ‘1999’ as Prince first told us to in 1982.
I, however, was. In fact, at the time of that great threshold, I was merely one term into my first year at Cambridge.
I travelled home after Michaelmas term and re-joined my school friends back in Portsmouth. I drank copious amounts of Peach Snaps and Lemonade at a friend’s house party before dashing outside during the bongs to watch a new millennium come into being – via fireworks of course – over the harbour. I was nineteen and 100% certain that the new millennium held for me many exciting things. Wealth and fame as a Hollywood screenwriter. A large and expensive flat in Soho. Another in New York, of course, with the mansion in LA. There would be Oscars and other assorted awards, which I would receive with suitable modesty and thanks to the little people.
And I had high hopes for the long termness of my relationship with a third-year I’d started dating during fresher’s week!
None of those things happened! But I’m not bitter. Not really.
In fact, I probably should have paid more attention to the science fiction writers who told me back then in the books I loved that my future in 20-something was going to be full of robots.
Because my ‘now’ certainly is. As the Junior Research Fellow in AI here at Homerton, I think about robots and AI much more than I could have ever predicted I would do, way back in 1999.
But also, because the world is genuinely full of robots.
They aren’t exactly walking down the street, helping old women (like myself), to cross the road, but they’re around.
A hundred years ago, at the start of the roaring 20s, Karel Capek gave us a name for such artificial beings in his play, “Rossum’s Universal Robots”: ‘robota’, from the Czech word for ‘serf’. He was struck by the fast growth and increasing dominance of the ‘factory’ and extrapolated from the treatment of the humans in such intense work environments to an imaginary being that could rise up against its overlords.
Capek’s ‘robota’ was made from a grey synthetic flesh, but by 1926 Edmond Hamilton wrote The Metal Giants, in which a computer brain running on atomic power creates an army of 300-foot-tall metallic robots. Such science fiction accounts have given us an impression of what the robots of 2000 and something would be like.
First, they’ll be embodied, as Capek’s robota were. But after the 1920s we came up with other robotic embodiments. There’ll be sexy ones, strong ones, fast ones… but most of all there’ll be ones that are hard to distinguish from humans.
Simon Schaffer has previously drawn a connection between Alan Turing’s famous test for computer intelligence with Cold War fears of secret agents ‘passing’ for ‘us’. In the 1980s Philip K Dick wrote us a new Turing test in his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. The Voight-Kampff empathy test was necessary as the replicants – again bioengineered like the ‘robota’ of R.U.R. – could pass unknown among us and need to be detected before they can hurt us.
Second, in having all these attributes, the robots might just be, well… better than us. And better is dangerous. Capek wrote the first popular robot factory rebellion and in 2019 Terminator: Dark Fate encouraged its audiences to draw a causal line between the factory worker who loses his job to a much more efficient automaton and the latest iteration of the deadly Skynet, Legion.
Of course, the factory robot isn’t embodied in the same way as the Terminator. And this is where 20th Century science fiction has failed us.
But then, science fiction is never about accurate prediction, but instead, it serves as a commentary on where we are now. Karel Capek wrote about the factory worker made of synthetic goop to focus us on industrialisation and dehumanisation.
However, Capek, and others, have inadvertently helped us towards a certain kind of face-blindness when it comes to robots and AI.
A robot-blindness, perhaps?
Almost every single one of you uses a robot at least once a week. Or… at least I hope that you do!
A washing machine meets the basic requirements of a robot. A washing machine has settings that allow you to alter its automatic programming to perform a series of procedures. And yet, I think, unless your washing machine also spoke to you, folded your clothes and put them away, and then asked you if you’d like a nice martini like a proper 1920s Jeeves, you wouldn’t think of it as a ‘real’ robot. This would require a few more bells and whistles, including genuine ‘AI’.
Conversely, though, when we do see an anthropomorphised robot – with two arms, and two legs, and a flubbery face – we are more inclined to see it as having that mysterious thing called ‘intelligence’.
Take Sophia, the Hanson Robot. She is by no means the most advanced form of AI available. Her interviews are scripted, her appearances highly orchestrated, and her social media account run by a human. But because she fits so neatly into our sci-fi informed expectations of a 2000 and something robot, we start to think that perhaps the future promised by those films and books set in 2020 is actually here, now.
But that is another form of robot-blindness and one which distracts us from all the examples of AI that aren’t shaped like humans.
And the various AI implementations that are insidious in our systems and our processes in the 2020s are the product of an accelerationist view, much as the boom in other technologies was in the 1920s.
You might have come across the expression, “Move fast and break things” – it was an internal motto for Facebook. Well, as we enter the 2020s we might see that some pretty important things are being broken by moving so fast. The roaring 1920s rushed millions into debt through speculation and commodification, and movements begun to help the people evolved in dangerous, popularist, and nationalist directions, leading to a second World War.
And the roaring 2020s are growing out of a decade where already social media and its algorithms have been weaponised by familiar ideologies.
A decade where decisions about our capability to do a job, to take a loan, or even to access information online were already being automated by non-transparent systems. A decade where unseen influence pushed and pulled us towards particular political candidates. A decade where AI was already being trusted before it was even as remotely as intelligent as the human next to you because it came packaged as the next Bright Young Thing and appeared on the Jimmy Fallon show.
So, will 2020 be a roaring decade of prosperity and glamour? Or will the excesses of accelerationism and technological change dash us, Charlestoning all the while, into a brand new Great Depression?
I want to suggest that there can be more than one way to roar.
Perhaps, instead of just having excessive parties – or bread and circuses – we will roar against the changes that would reduce us to parts in a greater machine. But I say this without advocating extreme Puritanism and a new Prohibition.
After all, the roaring 20s also involved activism, charity, and progress for many underrepresented groups. Although, there was also uneven and slow progress in many cases.
But if we are to try to imagine, as science fiction authors have done, a future containing robots, we should at least endeavour to make sure that we are not the cold, mechanical, beings that they wrote about. We should recognise the robotic around us, and within us.
In the roaring 2020s, it might seem like the future is here and now.
We must make that future what it should be.