Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Friday, December 5, 2014

Margaret Atwood’s Not-Very-Deep Thoughts on Robots

Margaret Atwood has been getting her feet wet in the sea of issues surrounding developments in robotics and comes away with some conclusions of corresponding depth. Robots, she says, are just another of the extensions of human capacity that technology represents, they represent a perennial human aspiration, maybe they will change human nature, but what is human nature anyway?

This is all more or less conventional stuff, dead center of the intellectual sweet spot for the Gray Lady, until Atwood gets to the very end. What really concerns her seems to be that we would commit to a robotic future and then run out of electricity! That would pretty much destroy human civilization, leaving behind “a chorus of battery-powered robotic voices that continues long after our own voices have fallen silent.” Nice image — but long after? That’s some battery technology you’ve got there. The robots would not care to share any of that power?

As I discuss in my new book Eclipse of Man: Human Extinction and the Meaning of Progress, most of those who believe in “Our Robotic Future,” as Atwood’s piece is titled, do so with the expectation that it is part and parcel of an effort at overcoming just the kind of Malthusian scarcity that haunts Atwood. They may of course be wrong about that, but given the track record of ongoing innovation in the energy area, it is hard to see why one would strain at this particular gnat.

Then again, the NYT essay suggests that most of Atwood’s literary knowledge of things robotic seems to end by the 1960s. Atwood’s own bleak literary futures seem to focus on the biological; maybe she has not got the transhumanist memo yet.

—Charles T. Rubin, a Futurisms contributor and contributing editor to The New Atlantis, is a Fellow of the James Madison Program at Princeton University.


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