Metal Machine Parenting

225px-NannybotIt’s the stuff of nightmares. Metal demons frankensteined into being for the purpose of molding children’s behavior to fit the government’s definition of “acceptable.”

Is this the plot of a low-budget 1950s science fiction film? Am I going to wake up screaming any moment now? No, this is the technological house of horrors in which we all now have the misfortune to dwell.

I’m referring to the fact that the National Science Foundation is spending $10 million to develop robotic “personal trainers” for children. While some kids might find the idea of a robot playmate cute and fun, the language being used to describe the program is downright chilling.

“[W]e want the robots to be able to guide the child toward a behavior that we desire,” said a principal investigator for the project.

By “behavior that we desire,” the designers mean more exercise and less eating. At least, that’s the beginning. Once the program is in place, the robots could push any agenda their programmers desire – whatever the fad of the month, pushed by the current bored and uninformed First Lady, might be.

“What we want to do is move these robots out of the laboratory and into schools and homes and clinics,” the scientist continued, presumably stroking a pointed goatee menacingly.

Exactly how these health enforcement monsters will be “deployed” into homes and schools remains obscure, but I’ll bet a shiny new nickel that parents won’t have very much say over when and how their children are “trained.”

This program is only the natural next step for a government increasingly committed to controlling every aspect of its citizens’ lives. People are waking up to the indoctrination of children through public schools, so regulators have to bring the indoctrination straight to the people. I guess when behavioral economics fail to “nudge” people far enough and fast enough, the logical next step is to shove them, kicking and screaming at the cold, lifeless hands, or more likely claws, of some mechanical monstrosity.

As long as we’re living in the land of sci-fi, I might as well mention a classic and portentous story by one of the greatest masters of the form, quasi-libertarian and borderline insane genius Philip K. Dick. The story is War Games, and it deals with the insidious nature of indoctrination through technology. When written, at the height of the Cold War, it was scarily relevant to the propaganda threats from abroad. Today, it applies not to enemy powers scheming overseas, but to the government’s attempt to brainwash their own citizens.

In the story, agents tasked with inspecting imported children’s games from Ganymede (which is simultaneously waging a bit of a Cold War against Earth) become preoccupied by a complex, mechanical citadel that swallows toy soldiers with clockwork regularity and in intricate patterns. The inspectors suspect some kind of countdown is occurring, perhaps a weapon of mass destruction, and anxiously monitor the device, waiting to see what its effect will be when it finally completes its task.

While they wait, they while away the time by playing a Ganymedian board game similar to Monopoly, a game so apparently harmless compared to the mysterious citadel that they quickly approve it for import. It is only later that they discover that the object of the game is not to accumulate the most assets, as in Monopoly, but rather the reverse, to give everything away. The game is actually a propaganda tool designed to train Earth children to surrender their property to the coming invaders.

The message still resonates today, with governments ever more committed to controlling our behavior “for our own good.” The goal of public education has always been to separate child from parent at an early age and to feed developing minds “appropriate” messages (for example, the cult-like recitation of loyalty oaths such as the Pledge of Allegiance.) Employing robots to come into people’s homes and fulfill this function is so terrifyingly Orwellian that the sheer outrageousness of the plan is almost admirable.

Isaac Asimov was one of the first writers to think seriously about the relationship between robots and humans. In order to protect mankind from artificial intelligence, he argued, all robots should be programmed with the Three Laws of Robotics.

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

These are sensible enough, but Asimov later amended them by adding a “Zeroth Law” to supersede the first three

0. A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

I have always thought that this addition was a grave mistake. It is all too easy, through the relentless logic of the machine, to come up with a scenario where the good of the individual and the good of the species are not in harmony. If robots, or in this case bureaucrats (a distinction without a difference), determine that a generation of kids raised on fast food and video games is bad for humanity, the next step is the violation of all individual rights, ultimately culminating in mass slavery “for the good of the species.”

There is a reason we keep endangered animals locked up in zoos: we have determined that it is too risky to their well-being to release them into the wild. How long until government rulers proclaim that we too are endangered – endangered by the phantom threats of poor diets or global warming – and therefore must be caged?

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One Response to “Metal Machine Parenting”

  1. Richard says:

    Well written, and very frightening. You don't need to be a conspiracy theorist to see which way the winds are blowing.

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