Robot action

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Now instruments are of various sorts; some are living, others lifeless; in the rudder, the pilot of a ship has a lifeless, in the look-out man a living instrument; for in the arts a servant is a kind of instrument. Thus, too, a possession is an instrument for maintaining life. And so, in the arrangement of the family, a slave is a living possession, and property an number of such instruments; and the servant himself is an instrument for instruments. For if every instrument could accomplish its own work, obeying or anticipating the will of others, like the statues of Daedalus, or the tripods of Hephaestus, which says the poet, “of their own accord entered the assembly of the gods;” if, in like manner, the shuttle would weave and the plectrum touch the lyre, chief workman would not want servants nor masters slaves. (Aristotle Politics 1:4)

Aristotle may not have anticipated robot hotels and bank tellers per se, but he did set forth a condition where slavery would be superfluous. It’s a technological problem, in this view. But from the perspective of the slave, as “an instrument for instruments,” the path doesn’t seem that clear. The development of machines that can read emotions is not targeted at easing the burden of the human race so much as a way of filling a labor shortage and improved robot stamina is destined to increased productivity, not quality of life.  A comment in “Industrial robots steal a march in east Asia” from the Financial Times this morning gets right to the point:

“Doubling productivity takes a long time,” he said. “Doubling computer power takes just two years.”

Robot servants aside, the arena where robots are likely to have the first and greatest impact is manufacturing, but just what is being produced at such an increased rate? Possessions to be consumed and deployed. Obliquely addressing the question of whether we need to double productivity at this accelerated rate, Aristotle teases out differences between types of possessions:

Now the instruments commonly so called are instruments of production, whilst a possession is an instrument of action. From a shuttle we get something besides the use of it, whereas of a garment or a bed there is only the use. Further, as production and action are different in kind, both require instruments, the instruments which they employ are likewise different in kind. But life is action and not production, and therefore the slave is the minister of action. (Aristotle Politics 1:4)

Aristotle goes on to elaborate on the details of slavery: “he who is by nature not his own but another mans” A man who does not possess himself is in turn a possession, and for Aristotle this is simply part of nature. Because he can then be separated from from his possessor, he is “an instrument of action.”

The key thought for me, however,  is that life is action and not production— therefore production does not in any way equate with a better life.

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