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Apocalypse now: Professor David Gunkel mulls GE commercial, Mayan calendar, robot ethics

December 6, 2012
David Gunkel

David Gunkel

by David J. Gunkel,  NIU Professor of Communication

Perhaps it is just coincidence, but there is an interesting convergence of apocalyptic thinking taking place in the final month of 2012.

On the one hand, we are quickly approaching the “end of the world” as predicted by the Mayan calendar – December 21, 2012 to be exact. On the other hand, we now appear to be on the verge of that robot apocalypse foretold by countless science fiction novels, short stories and films.

Case in point, a television commercial recently introduced by General Electric.

The advertisement, created by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (the husband/wife team behind “Little Miss Sunshine”), depicts many of the iconic robots of science fiction traveling across great distances to gather before some brightly lit airplane hanger for what we are told is the unveiling of some new kind of machines – “brilliant machines,” as GE describes it. And as we see Robby the Robot from “Forbidden Planet,” KITT the robotic automobile from Knight Rider” and Lt. Commander Data of Star Trek making their way to this meeting of artificial minds, we are told, by an ominous voice over, that “the robots are on the move.”

Although it doesn’t look like your typical robot apocalypse (e.g. “Terminator” or “Battlestar Galactica”), GE’s vision is an “end of the world” scenario. But what is ending is not the world per se but our deep-seated assumptions about the place and function of technology in our world.

Up until this point, technology has always been seen as a tool that we use, more or less effectively, to accomplish various tasks—mowing lawns, communicating with family and friends, or traveling to and from the office. As German philosopher Martin Heidegger described it, technology is typically understood as “a means to an end,” an instrument invented by and serving the needs of human beings in their everyday involvements and endeavors.

GE logoBut GE’s “brilliant machines” mark a significant change in the rules of the game. These increasingly smart and even intelligent machines are able to learn, adapt and communicate. They are not mere tools. They are, quite literally in the case of the advertisement, stepping into the light and becoming another kind of socially aware and active being.

For GE, this transformation is presented and sold as something that will make our world better. And like a lot of science fiction, there is a strain of utopian thinking behind this promise. “We bring good things to life,” as they used to say. But we all know “what technology giveth, it also taketh away.”

Consequently, the challenge for us at this particular juncture is to begin thinking about the social impact and consequences of this impending robot invasion. GE is absolutely correct, the robots are on the move, and they are converging on our world whether we recognize it or not. We cannot stop the incursion. But we can and do control how we respond. And the way we respond to and take responsibility in the face of these other kinds of Others, is precisely what I have sought to address in “The Machine Question: Critical Perspectives on AI, Robots and Ethics” (MIT 2012).

Although the world probably will not end on December 21, 2012, something is in the process of ending. And what we do in response to this apocalyptic event can and will make all the difference.

“The Machine Question” is available for purchase through The MIT Press, and numerous other book sellers. Gunkel, an NIU Presidential Teaching Professor in the Department of Communication, is author of two other books, “Hacking Cyberspace” and “Thinking Otherwise: Philosophy, Communication, Technology.”