How The Suicide Of A Marketing Guru Shaped The Future Of Mankind.
London, UK 2035. At the top of the nine-storey corporate office building for humanoid robot recruitment company Unimate Group, Karl Cort stood on the edge of a balcony between the green double skinned façade and pondered his existence among the machines and vegetation. At the age of 70, Cort, a distinguished silver haired man of slender athletic build, could remember the days when most of the occupants of the building were human, when the corporation, then known as iScribe Science, were at the cutting edge of their chosen field and the humanoid robots that had made man redundant and were now a potential threat to humans, were still in development.
Cort’s secretary, an attractive black woman in her forties, was accompanied to Cort’s office by a humanoid security operative and a second robot that worked as a data analyst. The humanoid with the distinctive Unimate Security logo on his uniform, was trying to persuade Cort to step back from the ledge. The irony of the situation was not lost on the Unimate CEO. Step any closer and I’ll take you with me, you dumb ass robot. Cort stood confidently on the edge of the building. He was not in the least afraid or even remotely emotional.
Cort wanted to jump because he had a secret that he believed should go with him to his grave. A secret that was the final piece of a complex technological and biological jigsaw that would enable Unimate’s sister company UIX Corp. to develop next generation humanoid robots with levels of emotional intelligence that would be greater than many humans. The scientists at UIX were one step away from cracking the code to robot thinking, judgement, problem solving, openness, self-control and self-analysis – everything humans could be, UIX humanoids would also be, but better, and without human error.
Then there would be no stopping the advancement. Soon robot humanoids would be taking the place of surgeons, lawyers and judges. These jobs, Cort believed, represented the last bastion of modern man. If robots could heal people, speak for people, judge people, then man would be redundant. What next, thought Cort, robots impregnating woman with manufactured human sperm? Even this unthinkable act was closer than many believed possible. The death of man could be prevented by his own death. And Cort wanted out. Unimate, UIX and their father company iScribe Science had already inflicted much irreparable damage on the fabric of society.
Journalism and marketing, professions that had provided so much for Cort in the days before automation, had ceased to exist; at least in the way Cort remembered them. Writers had been replaced by algorithm wielding computers and, in an age of total automation and widespread connectivity, marketers had been disconnected, cut out of the information loop. By 2030, 100 billion things were connected, yielding $40 trillion in new revenues, most of which was accrued to private-sector corporations such as iScribe.
The world of the Internet of Things (IoT) was dominated by Google who had developed the necessary data infrastructures, hardware prototypes and made anticipatory acquisitions, such as SkyNet, that allowed them to become a major player in a world were human brains were, more or less, connected to computers. SkyNet basically ran humanity, managing peoples lives on a daily basis. From the moment you woke to the moment you slept, SkyNet instructed, intervened and ordered.
Only a small amount of the population used actual computers. The rubbish dumps were full of desktops, laptops and smaller devices. Most people had enough wearable computer power in their clothing to get most of their tasks done. Even the eyeglasses and headphones that used to deliver virtual reality were now obsolete thanks to computer implants that went into the eyes and ears. The implants allowed direct interface with computers, communications and SkyNet-based applications. Computer implants designed for direct connection to the brain were also widely available. They were capable of augmenting natural senses and of enhancing higher brain functions like memory, learning speed and overall intelligence.
Computers were now capable of learning and creating new knowledge entirely on their own and with no human help. By scanning the enormous content of SkyNet, some computers knew literally every single piece of public information – every scientific discovery, every book and movie, every public statement, etc. – generated by human beings. Direct brain implants allowed users to enter full-immersion virtual reality, with complete sensory stimulation, without any external equipment. People could have their minds in a totally different place at any moment. This technology was in widespread use, with most communication occurring between humans and machines as opposed to human-to-human.
Of course, there was an upside to this new technological world order – the machines had virtually eradicated humankind’s propensity for self-destruction. The manufacturing, agricultural and transportation sectors of the economy were almost entirely automated and employed very few humans. Across the world, poverty, war and disease were almost non-existent thanks to technology alleviating want. Computer intelligence had become superior to human intelligence in all areas.
Cort accepted that, in many ways, the world was a better place. The concept of life expectancy had become irrelevant to humans and machines thanks to medical immortality and advanced computers. Cort would probably live another 40 years, at least, had he not decided to cut short his tenure on planet earth. If UIX had their way machines would eventually, within another ten years, attain equal legal status with humans. Humans and machines would merge in the physical and mental realms, and this, more than anything, frightened Cort. UIX were already developing cybernetic brain implants to enable humans to fuse their minds with robot humanoids.
The consequence would be that clear distinctions between humans and machines would no longer exist and that, Cort thought, should not be allowed to happen. He moved closer to the edge.
Cort, an advertising man by trade, had built iScribe Science literally from the ground up. The business started life in the basement of the then five storey office building; a small team of marketers, IT specialists and data scientists working around the clock to marry huge advances in pattern recognition software with the revolution in natural language generation to create algorithms that resembled a writer. Within two years iScribe’s computers were providing most of the world’s online news platforms with content. Within five years iScribe had achieved world domination. Ninety-five per-cent of online news content was being churned out by iScribe. Cort now owned the building, added four more storeys, and turned the basement into a development lab for a start-up called UIX Corp – the forerunner to Unimate Group, who now existed and had made more money and enjoyed more fame than iScribe ever had thanks to the humanoid robots that were first developed by UIX Corp.
Only a handful of people worked at Unimate whose corporate office’s resembled more of an urban farm than a high tech business that supplied thousands of humanoid robots to businesses and homes every day. The 200 species of fruits, vegetables and rice that were prepared and served in the food banks of the city every day were a philanthropic bi-product of the 50,000 square feet of urban farming facilities that also featured offices, an auditorium and rooftop garden.
Crops, office workers and humanoid robots shared this common space. Tomato vines were suspended above conference tables, lemon and passion fruit trees were used as partitions, salad leaves were grown inside rooms and bean sprouts under benches. The main lobby featured a rice paddy and a broccoli field, and seasonal flowers and orange trees were planted on the balconies between the green double skinned facade. The crops were equipped with fluorescent and LED lamps and an automatic irrigation system. An intelligent climate control system monitored humidity and temperature to balance human comfort during office hours and optimise crop growth at night.
Robots outnumbered humans by three to one at Unimate. The receptionist was a humanoid, as was the maintenance engineer and the IT technician. Most of the administrative staff, data analysts and automated marketing team were humanoids, as was the food distribution department. Apart from the CEO Cort, the only other human employees numbered less than 10. The accountant was human, as was the lawyer and Cort’s PA. Humanoid robots had made Cort rich and famous beyond his wildest dreams and yet his mistrust of them and their place in society was a constant, gnawing concern.
It would be five years before the first major issues with robot civil rights arose – activists declaring that robots were becoming conscious beings and thus needed protection under the laws – and another decade before the first major robot terrorist and the issue of robots become more real; but despite this, people adamantly wanted to keep robots around and Unimate had become the first recruitment company to specialise in humanoid robots and as such quickly grew into the world’s biggest provider of robot resources with offices in 40 cities around the world. Humanoid robots had become the largest revenue-generating consumer product on Earth. A robot could mimic humans in conversation and physical interactions so that it could fool an average person 50% of the time, but they didn’t fool Cort.
A sex robot had killed his best friend and business partner Saul Sager, a brilliant, extraordinary scientist who was as heavy into the sado-masochism scene as he was into mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and computer science. Sager was the best in the world at designing, constructing and operating robots. His death was a ghastly as it was ironic. The police and fire-fighters who were the first on the scene at the lab where Sager died, at first were not sure what they were looking at. It took them several hours to separate the scientist from the prototype machine that Sager had been secretly testing.
Before his death Sager had been advancing the field of robotics at a frightening rate. His skill on the “tools” only rivalled his psychic like vision. Sager had predicted within 25 years humanoid robots would become the largest selling consumer product and he was right.
When Cort first met Sager sometime in 2012, Sager talked about an autonomous car, and it happened within a year. Same with IBM’s Watson, the computer that won the quiz show Jeopardy in 2011. That was pretty remarkable, but Sager was working on a similar algorithm back in 2005. QIZ, Sager’s pet computer, possessed incredible wide general knowledge and the ability to respond to questions in the style of crossword clues. QIZ was plugged into Sager’s TV, playing Jeopardy, long before IBM developed Watson.
Cort and Sager, and their fledgling team at UIX Corp, were witnessing a momentous speed-up in artificial intelligence (AI) – in the power of machines to learn, communicate and interact with humans. UIX computers quickly learned to translate from foreign languages by reading multilingual versions of millions of pages of European Union documents. They learnt to recognise dogs, cats and human faces by crunching through millions of images — not the way a baby learns. Sager even created a machine that can figure out the rules of all the old Atari games without being told, and then play them better than humans.
But it was still hard for AI to interact with the everyday world. Robots remained clumsy – they could not tie your shoelaces or cut your toenails. But sensor technology, speech recognition, information searches and so forth were advancing apace. UIX Corp had their first real commercial breakthrough in the defence sector, selling armed sentry robots to South Korea to patrol the border with North Korea. In Iraq and Afghanistan the UIX tactical robot was busy removing unexploded bombs and mines and collecting forensic evidence.
While other scientists in other labs were focusing on developing robots for applications in fields described as the three Ds – tasks that were dirty, dangerous or dull – or pushing their limits to build robots for use in regions inaccessible to humans such as outer space, remote mountainous or desert land areas, and deep undersea, Sager was pushing back the boundaries of possibility by developing robots that could perform high skilled, variable, disorganised and complex tasks in environments that were changing.
Sager saw a not too distant future where robots cleaned your house, did various chores, helped care for the sick and elderly, and so on. There would be no limit to the valued services that these human-like robots would be able to provide. Cort saw the potential and bought into Sager’s vision. People would pay a lot to have robots around to help them in every way imaginable.
At that moment in time real money had not yet started to flow into developing humanoid robots, but this changed when iScribe took off and billions of pounds per year began to be invested into robot development. In the basement occupied by UIX Corp, rapid technology improvements started to occur. Within a few months robots were walking smoothly and very much like a human. By the end of 2017, UIX robots had facial expressions that could pass for a human and in the next four years all body movements could match humans in appearance, with little or no mechanical sound. UIX humanoid robots were soon driving trains and taxis and when Sager and his team finally cracked the cyber genetic language code in 2024, UIX were producing robots that could mimic humans in conversation so that it could fool an average person 30% of the time. Robots were being used as hospital and office porters, security guards patrolling warehouses, factories and offices and even as shop assistants – a busy pharmacy could be run by one pharmacist and a robot.
In 2028, UIX developed the first humanoid robot that could pass for a human enough that in everyday simple interactions with people, where conversations were minimal, most people could not tell. Sager had been blinded by his obsession with advancing the field of robotics. Unlike Cort, he did not see the disruptive change that was taking place, and that man was going to have to do something fairly radical to adapt to it. Long before UIX developed the first humanoid robot that could pass for a human, Cort predicted that eventually there would not be enough jobs for most people—average people who were not rocket scientists with a Ph.D. All the white-collar jobs would be lost to automation, from lawyers to radiologists and journalists. No sector would be immune, hence the launch of Unimate.
As Cort planned for a future of humanoid robot recruitment, Sager launched a spin off of UIX called cySEX, a company that specialised in the development of artificial sexual intelligence. The ultimate goal for cySEX was the creation of cybernetic organisms – cyborgs – that could interact sexually with humans. Sager believed that robots would eventually be accepted by most people as a replacement for a partner – it was simply the cost of producing such a machine that would prevent this from happening. But with advances in artificial hearts, lungs, eyes, ears, skin and so on, the creation of a part machine part human was possible technically. And with the weight of UIX behind the project, Sager felt it would happen, sooner rather than later.
In the meantime, while Sager obsessed over his cybernetic organisms, cySEX began to pioneer software that allowed people to interact physically via the internet in a sort-of augmented-reality experience of sex. cySEX found a way to connect sex toys by accessing their existing technology – machine feedback, pressure sensors, clench and ripple attachments, vibration motors, etc – to give a simulated version of intimate acts from a distance. It felt like the act of sex, although Sager, personally, could not wait for the day when man and cyborg could fuck each other. Had he been able to predict his future like he could predict the future of robot technology, Sager may have changed his mind about cySEX.
What was left of Sager was cremated and his ashes were placed in an urn that, according to instructions in Sager’s will, Cort took to the robotic vault at the National Newspaper Building, where Sager’s father, an ex newspaper editor, had spent the last years of his life working as a curator. Cort thought it odd that Sager felt it necessary to commit his mortal remains to here of all places. Maybe it was because Sager, as co-founder and chief scientist of iScribe, had contributed to the death of the traditional newspaper business and, in some deep cathartic way, believed the robotic vault at the National Newspaper Building was as good a resting place as any.
Sager’s ashes were heading for an unmarked tray deep in the vault, along with millions of old newspapers. Cort felt a twinge of emotion as the tray and its unusual cargo were whisked away by a driverless shuttle car that moved quickly through an airlock into the vault where robots, lurking in the gloom, awaited a command to take the urn on its final journey. Did Sager really want it this way?
As Cort left the National Newspaper Building he remembered the day when Sager had one of his many eureka moments. This one in particular was the one that led to the birth of iScribe – the moment when Sager worked out a way of teaching machines how to write journalism. At first, the computers’ output was limited to basic sports reports and business news. But Sager was convinced this was only the beginning and it was not long before iScribe’s machines were bashing out 2,500 word stories on innovations in machine learning.
Sager argued that by humanising the machine and giving it the ability not only to look at data but, based on general ideas of what was important and a close understanding of who the audience was, he was giving it the tools to know how to tell stories. Imagination is really the only limitation, Sager told Cort. A computer will win a Pulitzer prize within five years and 99% of journalism will be written by computer by 2030. No one doubted Sager. His vision was crystal clear – iScribe’s powerful software would reduce a glut of data to a polished story in seconds.
Sager knew he was standing at the dawn of a new relationship with the digital world. The great mass of data that was being gathered second by second, collected by cars, homes, search histories, businesses, governments, remained for the most part raw. What is the most sophisticated thing the machine could do in that respect now? Sager asked Cort. It was a purely rhetorical question.
But Sager wanted more. He wanted to inject some randomness. He wanted iScribe’s robot writers to be quirky, sometimes sarcastic. But it had to be the result of a decision – conscious reasoning – and not emotion. Sager wanted robots to think like humans, but not act like them.
iScribe quickly learned to frame stories to suit its audience. If the readers were the supporters of a particular football team, it gave the match report from that team’s vantage. Likewise, if it was creating two company reports based on the same data, the machine could produce a positive emphasis for clients and a must-try-harder tone for employees. It had learned the art of spin.
In the longer run, I believe that machines will be as smart as and eventually smarter than we are about everything, Sager told Cort, who, for the first time, actually doubted his colleagues rationale.
When a great writer tells a story, he or she knows how to craft it to make readers believe something, through argument, a set of emotional dramas or a particular structure, Cort argued. You can make someone sad without being sad yourself. Or you can make someone angry and be completely calm and distanced from that anger. That is what journalism does. It is a craft. A machine could never have its own emotional states – how could it possibly know that it was doing enough to produce that reaction? He waited for a reaction, but Sager was deep in thought. He had already solved that particularly challenge and was thinking of much greater things – such as developing robots capable of creating new knowledge entirely on their own and with no human help.
Cort was still standing on the edge of the balcony between the green double skinned façade at the top of the nine-storey Unimate office building when his cell phone rang. The antiquated Nokia belonged in a museum and not in the hands of the CEO of the world’s most famous technological empire. It was Cort’s way of rebelling, of keeping his feet on the ground, figuratively speaking – a connection to a past life. It actually cost Unimate a fortune to keep Cort’s Nokia connected to an otherwise hardware free network. The growth of neurons on silicon chips had made the mobile phone obsolete.
Hello, it’s Cort. The voice on the other end was Larry Edelman, the CSO at MedTec, a company who specialised in surgical robots. You OK to chat Karl? Call you back later if you’re busy. Cort smiled. No, it’s ok Larry. Later won’t work for me. How can I help?
MedTec were leading light in the world of surgical robots. Since Edelman launched the company in 2002, about 5,000 surgical robots had performed more than 20 million operations worldwide. MedTec had also developed next generation surgical robots to help to seek and destroy cancers, which they done successfully for five years now. MedTec’s next goal was to develop cybernetic organisms – cyborgs – robots that could actually do the surgery themselves.
Up until now that had not been possible. The software would have to be able to work on many different levels at the same time – what the scalpel was doing, what was going on with the auxiliary staff in the operating theatre – then bring it all together to make a decision. Then there was the quagmire of ethics. Who is responsible if something goes wrong? It is not always going to be one organisation. It’s going to be complicated.
Edelman, like Sager, would not take no for an answer. He believed surgical robots had the potential to be more than just instruments for the surgeons to use for keyhole surgery. He was calling Cort to tell him the amazing news. MedTec were very close to perfecting a humanoid robot that could do the job of a human surgeon – and with greater precision and speed – and they had received a green light from the ethics committee.
Once MedTec had the code, from UIX, to fully unlock robot thinking, the cyborg surgeon could go into production. Cort had the code, developed by Sager before his death, and only Cort knew how to access it.
They offer greater precision than handheld tools, particularly in hard-to-access parts of the body such as close to the spinal cord, Edelman gushed, giving Cort an unwelcome sales pitch. And recovery is then so much faster because the operation is so precise, the MedTech CSO continued.
Congratulations Larry. I am sure medical robotics have lots of potential to transform the quality of life of every single one of us. If you can put bones back together, then people can walk again. What’s more important than that?
And with that Karl Cort threw himself off the building, skydiving down past the green double skinned façade, past the watching eyes of Unimate employees, both human and otherwise, toward the city street below. One last thought crossed his mind – one thing worse than death – the site of a MedTec cyborg surgeon putting him back together.