I, for one, scoff at our robot overlords

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support rabble.ca for as little as $5 per month!

Apart from vampires and the rain-soaked kiss of true love, there is no more persistent cinematic trope than computers ruling the world. They are the Skynet of the Terminator movies, the HAL of 2001, the Matrix of The Matrix and the Johnny Depp of Transcendence. In these films computer intelligence has moved far beyond the cranial capabilities of mere humans. The machines can out-think us, outfight us and can even invade other machines and reproduce themselves. Humans are merely slaves or, at best, fresh batteries.

It was hard not to think of these films after reading a couple of news items in the last month. First, the team that built Siri is now working on Viv, an artificially intelligent personal assistant that makes Siri look like a Speak 'n' Spell. Second, IBM announced that it has created a "neurosynaptic computing chip." The novel chip simulates the brain's neurons, synapses and axons. It can learn to look for and flag "interesting" objects in a video stream. Cut to scene of naked, hungry survivors being hunted like rabbits by metal overlords.

Oh, and one final news item to add some verisimilitude to that last money shot. This week a startup, One Codex, announced it wants to make it easy to search the petabytes of data about the genetic information of living creatures, including humans. Know your enemy indeed.

But, let us, please, put away our foil hats as we consider all this.

It is true that we have, collectively, created a diffuse digital database of the lives, loves, inventions and art of the human race online. For good or ill, it is a wacky fun house mirror held up to the mundane traipse of flawed bipeds for the last 30 years. We can search and we can find, using a device the size of a used bar of soap, just about anything we need to know. Go ahead, ask Siri: "What planes are overhead right now?" if you don't believe me.

It is also true that virtual assistants like Google Now, Siri and Cortana are getting smarter all the time. They will soon be so clever that actually entering a search will seem as quaint as inputting DOS commands on a screen of green text. Search, the way Google makes money at it, will seem like a commodity offering, or even a public utility.

And, yes, robots that can walk, run, skitter and swarm are already among us.

But does all that add up to a future that plays out like a sci-fi blockbuster? I don't think so.

I have every faith that in the next ten years the Web will be a natural language query away and that our vacation plans will be a matter of our digital valet networking with virtual valets worldwide. Maybe that will happen through wearables, maybe via implants. Probably our brains will be augmented as invisibly as our eyes are when we get LASIK eye surgery. I have no doubt manufacturing and service jobs will be passed to robots and the care and feeding of those robots to other robots.

But that is a far cry from a robot revolution, a sentient über mind and master metal race. The more we understand the human brain, using the tools we've invented to do that, the more we appreciate that we know little about the complex electrochemical dance that gives rise to consciousness. I think that complexity will yield more complexity that in turns unpacks a fractal depth of unfathomable richness. To compete with that using the constraints of Moore's law is like expecting a snail to win a race against a rifle shot.

Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author, below.


Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet. 


Related Items

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.