On Sunday night in a much-anticipated interview with 60 Minutes, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced the coming of the apocalypse.
Amazon is about to let loose a fleet of sentient (or, as they call them, “autonomous”) robots on America, presumably to hunt down and destroy all human life so that finally robotic beings can rule the world. The robots are tiny flying drones that will have the capability of delivering Amazon packages in the span of 30 minutes.
While I can appreciate the universal human desire to have my assless chaps delivered as soon as possible, this is terrifying. Amazon released a short propaganda video showing how the service, which will be called Amazon Prime Air, will work.
Now, before you say, “Oh, that’s so cool!” let’s take the time to look at the modern era’s prophets — aka, sci-fi writers — and see what they have to say about this world-ending innovation.
Amazon is building aerial death machines.
It’s easy to accept the Roomba as a fact of life, because it’s basically a Tamagotchi with a vacuum function. There’s nothing threatening about a Roomba. The Amazon Prime drone, though, is much different. Amazon is calling them “octocopters,” which is about as ominous a name as I can think of. In H.G. Wells’ sci-fi classic The War of the Worlds, the Martians are able to reduce the city of London to rubble, and they only havethree appendages. Imagine what a robot with eight can do. Also, the Martian tripods were manned by actual living Martians, so when they died, the tripods became useless. No such luck with these autonomous lobotomizing machines.
This first problem is apparent in the video. The octocopter gracefully passes over a farm and a lake and lands on a back porch, while a father and his son wait safely inside. Only when the octocopter takes off does the man leave the safety of his home to come out and retrieve the package. You know that in real life he’s going to come out too early, and one of the octocopter’s eight sharp rotary blades is going to slice his neck at the jugular, leaving him to die a spluttering death while his child screams inside.
No one is teaching the octocopters how to love.
Sci-fi master Isaac Asimov famously created the Three Laws of Robotics, which would presumably be programmed into all sentient robots to make them safe for day-to-day human interaction. The laws are:
- 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.
Now, while Amazon insists that they will be complying with as-yet nonexistent FAA Guidelines, we can probably safely presume that the FAA will not place the Three Laws into its guidelines. First, because the drones are “autonomous” and not “sentient,” and second, because we already have drones, and one of their primary purposes for existence is to break Law #1.
As we enter into the Drone Age, we’re finding ourselves having trouble catching up morally with our technological advances. As comedian Patton Oswalt says: “We’re science! We’re all about coulda! Not shoulda!”
Not to be too flip about the recent reams-worth of articles on the morality of the drone debate, and not to be a total Luddite, but maybe we should decide as a society whether we want murderbots roaming the skies before we move forward with privatizing them.
At the very least, America just got fatter.
Okay, for just a second, let’s make the ludicrous assumption that I’m wrong, and that this is actually a huge technological innovation, and marks the real beginning of a Drone Age where robots and humans live in harmony, and the robots don’t rise up and destroy us like in Terminator or Battlestar Galactica.
At the very least this is going to turn us all into fatasses; at worst, it’s going to start a Marxist revolution. Let’s start with the latter: Presumably, the octocopter’s first job as a drone will be to deliver pink slips to the Amazon workers it’s replacing. Seriously — as drones get more sophisticated, they will replace more and more menial tasks, effectively destroying the livelihood of lower-class workers. It’ll be a while before they can totally replace art historians and travel writers (suck it, toasters!), but those are the professions at the pinnacle of academic achievement. For the majority of the world, though, this is a problem.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote about what a society where machines have replaced humans as workers would look like in his novel Player Piano, and while I refuse to spoil the ending, here’s a hint: The unemployed workers get discontent. This strikes me as the more likely outcome, seeing America’s aversion towards helping out its working poor, but there’s another possibility.
In this final possibility, menial labor is slowly taken over by drones, and we develop an adequate welfare system that can support the now vast swathes of unemployed, or can help put them to work in professions with higher levels of education. The standard of living will go through the roof, but unless we reduce our levels of consumerism, we’ll eventually use up the earth’s resources anyway and be forced to take to the Final Frontier to search for organic life while robots cater to the every need of our increasingly chubby, no-longer-gravity-bound populace. Just like in Wall-E.
So those are our options: get murdered by octocopters, be enslaved by octocopters, start a Marxist revolution, or move to space and get fat. Thanks a lot, Amazon. In thousands of years, we’ll look upon our newest abomination and whisper: “I am become Jeff Bezos, Destroyer of Worlds.”