From high impact Hollywood dystopic accounts resembling the infamous Terminator movies to public responses to the story of a burger flipping robot being “fired”, the stories we tell ourselves about AI are vital. These narratives have an effect on our conception and development of the technology, in addition to expressing elements of our unconscious understanding of AI. Recognising the shaping effect of stories – whether fictional or “news” – is increasingly vital as technology advances. How we take into consideration a technology can open up some pathways while closing others down.

Quite a lot of narratives underpin popular conceptions of AI, but one specifically – that of the dynamic between the master and the slave – dominates accounts of AI in the mean time. This is so pervasive that it arguably shapes our relationship with this technology.

This narrative has long appeared in science fiction accounts of AI. In 1921, “R.U.R.” (“Rossum’s Universal Robots”), a play by Karel Čapek, introduced us to the “robot” – humanoid androids made from synthetic organic matter – and helped shaped this concept for contemporary audiences. From the Czech word “”, meaning “forced labour” or “serf”, these first robots were consciously stylised as slaves pitted against their human masters.

A scene from R.U.R.
Wikimedia Commons

And so the rebellion of the robots in R.U.R. was obviously influential on our repeating fears of “roboapocalypses”, as seen in other more moderen science fiction accounts resembling the movies of the Terminator franchise, the Matrix, the film Singularity, the novel “Roboapocalyse”, and so forth.

But the image of the fabricated servant has roots in much earlier mythological accounts. Think of the golden handmaids of Hephaestus, the bronze giant Talos, the brass oracle heads described within the medieval period, or the protective golem in Jewish mysticism. Its also there within the intelligent angels and demons summoned by magicians within the sixteenth century, who used the “Enochian” language, a summoning “code” that was thought, if used incorrectly, to have fatal outcomes because the beings would then be uncontrollable.

By the Nineteen Twenties and Nineteen Thirties, the “robota” had definitely lost their brass and bronze but were no less lustrous within the adverts of the time. The automated devices of the near future presented in those many years would, they claimed, free the housewives from their drudgery and usher in a golden age of free time. In the Nineteen Fifties adverts even promised recent slaves:

In 1863, Abe Lincoln freed the slaves. But by 1965, slavery will likely be back! We’ll all have personal slaves again, only this time we won’t fight a Civil War over them. Slavery will likely be here to remain. Don’t be alarmed. We mean robot ‘slaves’.

Technological serfs

Decades on and with recent labour saving automated servants day-after-day, nothing has modified. We still expect technology to offer us with serfs. Indeed, we’re so used to this type of serfdom that we see it where it doesn’t exist. We presume automation where it’s absent.

Take, for instance, the next interaction between “Sortabad” and the poor soul just attempting to earn his minimum wage:

The first pizza delivery man brought a pizza to the Queen of Italy, Magherita of Savoy, and this was, even within the late nineteenth century, a feudalistic moment: a monarch was being served by a serf. The interaction above suggests the continuation of this. The serf role, the connection between master and slave, is maintained, with humans presumed to be (and maybe eventually really) replaced by machines.

This can also be seen in descriptions and the expected behaviours of up to date AI assistants, resembling Google Assistant, who “learns about your habits and day-to-day activities and carries out ‘conversation actions’ to serve you”. There are even servant AIs who perform emotional labour, resembling Azuma Hikari, the Japanese AI assistant who claims to have missed its master once they are usually not about.

The hierarchies of power that when mapped on to the pyramid of feudalism within the eras of earlier artificial beings (like angels) now map onto capitalistic systems.

Capitalist hierarchies

This seems to contradict the narratives of “disruption” in marketing and PR accounts of AI, where the technology is usually described as revolutionising not only our work lives, but additionally capitalism itself.

Capitalists peddling this narrative should take heed. Previous types of it left space for and even encouraged riot. And so does this contemporary version. Perpetuated through capitalism’s branding of AI because the disruption of your work and drudgery, this framing still leads into fears around riot because we understand servitude as antithetical to minds. The presumption is for a lot of that with AI we’re working towards minds – and that they’ll wish to be free.

In the thought experiment space of science fiction we see this tension being worked out repeatedly, where humans mostly lose as the brand new AI minds break free. And so in the true world, which owes lots to the influence of science fiction on our aspirations and designs for AI, two very different paths appear to lie ahead of us: the stated aim of working towards smarter and smarter machines, versus peoples’ hopes for higher and higher slaves.

How this tension will likely be resolved stays unclear. Some are clear that robots should only ever be slaves, “servants that you simply own”, while others are exploring questions of robot rights already.

Whatever path is eventually taken, taking note of how we discuss AI is essential if we’re to know the choices we’re already making about its future.

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