Wednesday, March 15, 2017


I have a new remote for my Apple TV. It’s a remarkable little instrument, quite small in the hand, and with it I can communicate with the television via voice command. I can simply hold up the device and say “Casablanca,” and in no time at all the icon for the famous old movie appears on the television screen. With a click of the remote—and the payment of a $2.99 rental fee—I can watch one of the finest movies Hollywood ever produced. Quite a deal! It’s the same with Siri, by the way, who appears (to me) unpredictably and somewhat annoyingly on my cell phone, on my television screen and even on my computer, to ask me how she can help me. I never know what to tell her.

A propos of which, I spent sometime yesterday teaching Ellie—to whom these things are even more mysterious than to myself—how to work the remote, and for this reason, perhaps, awoke in the middle of the night giving out enigmatic and quite needless orders to some disembodied entity that existed only in my mind. Which led me to reflect on where all this might lead.

The possibilities are endless. There are already, as I understand it, driverless cars and trucks out on the roads. Thousands, perhaps millions have sacrificed their jobs to the automatons that do their work without salary, benefits, or complaint. I have seen—on television, I’m sure—the images of robots given startlingly realistic human form and face...

... along with humanoid skills.

And so I wonder. I can easily imagine a future in which every family has a life-like robotic servant, in the same way that today we have cars, television sets, computers, as a matter of course. The family robot will be ready to respond to every command: clean the house, prepare the dinner, do the dishes, baby-sit the children… Service, perhaps, my sexual needs? An indispensible convenience, in other words. Who cold resist such help around the house?

I also happen to be reading The Undergound Railroad, a deeply disturbing novel about slavery by Colson Whitehead, and it occurred to me to wonder what the possession of a virtual slave would mean to his/her/its human owner. The primary victims of the slavery system were the slaves themselves, of course. Abducted from their homes and abused in every conceivable way, they suffered more cruelly than we privileged folk can possibly imagine. The deep wound to the soul of our fellow Americans of African descent remains in many ways unhealed to this day.

Less obvious, perhaps, is the dehumanization of those who deemed themselves superior beings for purely racial reasons, claiming the right to own other human beings and use them to their personal advantage. These slave-owners willingly sacrificed their own humanity even as they misappropriated that of their victims, inflicting suffering on others in order to profit from their misery. It’s my belief that we Caucasian Americans also continue to suffer to this day from that inhuman cruelty we practiced long ago.

So I wonder what it will do to us to become slave-owners once more? Our “slaves” may be machines which will not have the capacity to suffer as human beings do. But what happens to the psyche of one who can simply exercise the power to have all his needs provided for, who can indiscriminately issue orders in the expectation that every order will be unquestioningly obeyed? Is that power in itself not in some way damaging to our fundamental humanity?

The human spirit as I define it is the ability to look beyond one’s immediate and basic needs for survival, to cooperate with others, to be inventive, to deal with adversity, to love, and feel compassion. We risk sacrificing that humanity when we assume the right to command others—even machines—to do our bidding, fulfill our least requirement, and relieve us of the responsibility to see to our own lives.

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