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To understand where robotization will go - take a look at popular culture


In recent years there has been a lot of talk about robots. According to a report by consulting firm Merrill Lynch we are witnessing a “robot revolution”. In the new GRI-report “Robotization – Then and Now”, Barbara Czarniawska and Bernward Joerges, contextualize contemporary hype surrounding robots and artificial intelligence tracing the theme of robotization in popular culture from the 1920’s to the present.

In the report the authors present works that put the issue of robotization on the top of the media agenda in recent years. For example, Oxford researchers Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne in their influential report “The future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation”, predicted that 47 percent of US employment can be automated in a decade or two.

The authors then analyze works of popular culture, specifically science fiction from 1920 to 2015. To analyze popular culture is informative to understand how people view robotization and what hopes and fears they have. But also, claim the authors, because popular culture not only mirrors public opinion but also shapes it.

– We came to a sad conclusion that popular culture influences societies more strongly than social sciences, says Barbara Czarniawska.

As the authors wrote in the report:

“Fiction and practice feed on each other: Texts are read; artifacts are consumed but also interpreted. Ideas shape practices, and practice gives rise to new ideas. Science feeds fiction, but fiction may guide scientific endeavors”.

This also means that accounts of robotization, artificial intelligence and automation in popular culture can influence how robotization actually develops. The authors quote Katherine N. Hayles as saying “visions of the future, especially in technologically advanced areas, can dramatically affect present developments”.

– For instance, quite a few of (William) Gibson's fantasies were taken up by IT people, says Barbara Czarniawska.

Thus, popular culture is a good place to look if one wants to understand where present developments of robotization will go.

Freedom from work?

The works analyzed are R.U.R; I, Robot; Player Piano; 2001: A Space Odyssey; Star Wars; Blade Runner; Snow Crash; The Matrix; Stepford Wives; Big Hero 6; Interstellar, and Seveneves.

So what are the hopes and fears and have they changed? Robots can do dull jobs; perform complex tasks quicker; protect and defend people; or free people from work. But they also can deprive people of jobs; commit criminal acts; and, in dystopias, take over the world; use people as energy.

Have the hopes and fears surrounding robotization changed over time?

– Yes and no. We couldn't see very clear patterns. Some themes survive, and some vanish and reappear –- or not, says Barbara Czarniawska.

The authors did find one surprising result: The hope that robots could free humans from work disappeared in the late sixties.

Why do you think this is the case?

– Probably because about that time it begun to be obvious that people do not want to be freed from work: work gives meaning to their life, if they like it, that is, says Barbara Czarniawska.

Next the researchers will analyze how robotization are represented in mass media.

Download and read the full report:

More information

Read also an interview with Barbara Czarniawska: "Humans and machines are competing"