The AI-Robot Wars: Is Dystopian Science Fiction Becoming a Reality?

Image by Steve Johnson.

Have you ever felt like you’re living in a badly produced B science fiction movie? I know I do. When I started writing about the dark side of emerging technologies 30 years ago in Digital Mythologies, I called out some of the “mad science” being done at MIT. This included the work of Marvin Minsky and Hans Moravec — fringe thinking that, at the time, seemed fortunately contained in a fairly narrow segment of the scientific community. I never dreamed that their bizarre and unsettling ideas about merging humans with computers and creating hybrid humans would actually become widely accepted in technology circles or that powerful corporations would engage in making these ideas a reality. Alarmingly, this is now happening and it’s deeply disturbing.

It was the poet Allen Ginsberg who said that we’re “living in science fiction”. His statement was deeply prophetic. We’re now in the midst of a Technology Takeover, pointing toward a world of technocratic governance and complete dependency on tech giants and the systems they control. The corporations behind it are the most powerful ones on the planet. You know the names: Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Meta, Tesla/SpaceX and others. Among the individuals behind some of these companies are the four richest and most powerful people on the planet: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg. In a more generous frame of mind, we might call them the masters of the universe but perhaps a more apt description might be the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

Robots and AI are taking over our culture, our politics, our way of life and our relationships to each other as social beings.

There are a plethora of sanguine articles oozing out of the mainstream press about the “promise of AI.” Many of them follow the same basic template as if scripted from talking points. The semantic parsing is something like this: “AI has the potential to radically change our lives for the better but we have to be careful to use it well as it has some potential for negative use.” This is the self-same template that has been used for many other high-profile technology advances including the development of nuclear and genetic engineering capabilities.

Let’s be clear about what’s happening here as there’s no room for equivocation. Robots and AI are taking over our culture, our politics, our way of life and our relationships to each other as social beings. They’re becoming the front guard for a new and unprecedented technocratic form of governance which represents the apotheosis of Western scientific materialism. Further, these new forms of governance are being carried out by unelected officials operating behind the scenes and in the backrooms of a mediated society well out of public view. The reality is that technocratic governance is fundamentally anti-democratic and lays the groundwork for a kind of authoritarianism that many of our experts in political science are unequipped to recognize and explain.

Parsing the Technology Blitz

If we step back for a moment, it’s really quite amazing to consider how quickly and deeply the Tech Takeover has happened and how it has become both normalized and widely accepted by the political class and media elites. There are many examples. In 2023, for example, the New Yorker published an astonishing article called “The Future of Fertility.” It laid out how, in the future, corporations may have the opportunity to create and grow human eggs in the laboratory using a process using In-vitro gametogenesis, the next scientific development step after In-vitro fertilization. It discussed the possibility that human eggs could eventually be generated simply from a blood sample. Such a process would be done as a corporate endeavor and investor capital is already being poured in to start-up companies.

Speaking to the profit motive, the author casually noted that “analysts valued the global I.V.F. market at more than twenty-three billion dollars.” The article hinted at artificial wombs as a possibility being contemplated, whereby humans would be grown in corporate settings for wealthy patrons who could afford such services. Gameto, a New York-based biotech startup, is exploring in-vitro maturation i.e. how to mature eggs that have been extracted from the body rather than made in a dish.

Let’s stop and think about this and put it into ordinary language: manufacturing human beings will develop into a corporate-driven market. Basically, we’re talking about designer babies with the New Yorker’s obscure and overly complex description acting as a kind of cheering section. These scientist entrepreneurs, along with other genetic modification “projects” would like to fully appropriate and control human biology for profit if they could (fortunately, at the moment, federal law prohibits the actual patenting of humans). Interestingly, the much-lionized CEO of OpenAI, Sam Altman, is in the thick of the projects described in the article.

Aside from synthetic biology which represents an attempt to hack human biology and evolution itself, we have the rise of AI and robots in our midst. Many decades ago, when science fiction was still whimsical and fun rather than dark and dystopian, we saw robots appear in popular culture that were benign and friendly. Some may recall Robbie the Robot from the movie “Forbidden Planet” and, of course, there was R2D2 in “Star Wars,” with a demeanor as cute as any Fox Terrier. However, while the nation was busy coping with Covid, several dystopian trends seem to have sprung from a Pandora’s box.

One of these trends is the advent of the robotic dog, an ugly and malevolent-looking device that looks not unlike a giant, malformed, metallic insect. It’s manufactured and sold by a company called Boston Dynamics. Founded as an MIT spin-off, the company was acquired by Google in 2013, underscoring Google’s deep ties to the defense industry. Here in the US, there have been numerous ill-advised public sector law enforcement experiments with these devices—fortunately with significant levels of pushback from citizens. The cities that appear to have most enthusiastically adopted robotic dogs are Boston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. In November 2022, San Francisco approved the use of lethal force for their police robots. There was a huge city-wide backlash and the following month they quickly reversed the decision, only to eventually reverse the reversal. The ACLU weighed in on this topic stating: “Our overarching position is that the police should be prohibited from using robots to enact violence. Robots should not be used to kill, subdue, push, constrain, or otherwise control or harm people.”

Then there is AI which has been let loose and will accelerate these trends by many orders of magnitude and strengthen technocratic control significantly. Churning out robots with AI intelligence will dehumanize society and culture much further. Already Harper’s magazine reports that $60 million dollars were spent in 2023 on AI-based romantic avatars. And the town of Modesto, California plans to use an AI chatbot to field questions from its citizens. What a great way for politicians to dodge the kind of accountability that’s so badly needed while democracy continues to deteriorate.

Robot Wars: Could They Happen?

Will the Tech Takeover lead to public reaction against these intrusive new technologies being pushed into our lives by the fusing of government and corporate power? In 2018, I published an article in the The Technoskeptic about a rather bizarre series of events took place, again in San Francisco — a clash between a robot patrolling city streets and irate citizens who were outraged at a machine functioning in a law enforcement capacity.

San Francisco’s SPCA was experiencing problems with crime and vandalism on its campus. SPCA management linked that trend to the high numbers of homeless individuals living nearby so they “hired” a robot security guard to patrol the area and drive the homeless away. The robot, called K9, was designed with GPS, lasers, sensors, and cameras to avoid obstacles and monitor its surroundings. What SPCA management didn’t anticipate was an overwhelmingly negative response from city residents and pedestrians. The targets of the robot’s policing—the homeless—were, of course, not pleased to be chased around by a vicious electric can opener on wheels. At one point, K9 was knocked over and outfitted with a tarp. One enterprising individual poured barbecue sauce over its sensors.

San Francisco appears to be at the center of the Tech Takeover so it’s not surprising that it might become the center of a tech revolt. In 2023, for example, we saw tech sabotage being conducted against driverless cars, a 5G-based tech “solution” that appears to have been prematurely pushed into public use before the technology was perfected (if indeed it will ever be perfected). The publication Futurism reported that in 2022, a Tesla self-driving car was found to have caused a serious accident in San Francisco that injured a two-year old child.

An anonymous activist group called Safe Street Rebel has been engaged in tech pushback by fighting against the driverless cars that are now ubiquitous throughout the city. In almost Ninja-like fashion using motorbikes, members of the organization have swooped in to place orange traffic cones on self-driving cars in San Francisco. The cones immobilize the vehicles until someone removes them. As NPR notes: “Safe Street Rebel isn’t the only group that’s had issues with autonomous vehicles. San Francisco’s police and fire departments have also said the cars aren’t yet ready for public roads. They’ve tallied 55 incidents where self-driving cars have gotten in the way of rescue operations…”

We’re beginning to see the stirrings of minor rebellion against the Tech Takeover. The only problem is, unlike the Wizard of Oz, there appears to be no one behind the curtain to identify. That’s because the Tech Takeover is being orchestrated on multiple levels and by multiple players. Further, the technology itself is being embedded in every nook and cranny of our lives with too many examples to enumerate in this article. People who live in apartments now sometimes need to use a smartphone simply to do laundry in their buildings or park in the town parking lot. As helpful as smartphones can at times be, this represents a new kind of economic discrimination towards the elderly and financially distressed and is just one example of deepening technological dependency.

Many will realize at a visceral level that their everyday lives are trapped in a claustrophobia-inducing closed-circuit technocratic system that robs them of autonomy and freedom while purporting to do the opposite.

In the 80’s and 90’s, science fiction movies and literature commonly had themes of “robot wars” where humans were pitted against the dominance of a robotic society. Will this be our future? Will there be a mass uprising against AI and the vast AI-based robotic machinery that’s taking over both the means of production and the means of information? We humans are known for our adaptability and stoicism in difficult situations such as world wars and major disasters. That stoicism and sense of “accepting what can’t be changed” seems to be part of our psychological and perhaps even biological makeup. But the tech takeover is such a massive appropriation of our social, political, and cultural life — and indeed our own biological substrate — that stoic acceptance might not be the way to go.

In the next few years, it most certainly will have finally dawned on the mass of humanity especially in advanced Western nations that something is badly amiss. Many will realize at a visceral level that their everyday lives are trapped in a claustrophobia-inducing closed-circuit technocratic system that robs them of autonomy and freedom while purporting to do the opposite.

While—wisely adopted—emerging technologies still offers great promise, many aspects of the technology that Big Tech promised would advance the quality of our lives has arguably turned out to be a grand illusion and an existential trap. It has been perpetrated by an out-of-control combination of government and corporate interests and a few unelected oligarchs that have a surfeit of power that no one or no institution can seem to contain. By 2025, it’s quite possible we’ll see the beginning of the “robot wars” in which humanity, at least on some level, begins to push back against the unyielding juggernaut of the Tech Takeover.

Tom Valovic is a journalist and the author of Digital Mythologies (Rutgers University Press), a series of essays that explored emerging social and political issues raised by the advent of the Internet. He has served as a consultant to the former Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. Tom has written about the effects of technology on society for a variety of publications including Columbia University’s Media Studies Journal, the Boston Globe, and the San Francisco Examiner, among others.