From HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey to the machines in The Matrix, we’ve always feared a future where robots are in charge. We envision a violent, sterile world, in which human emotion is the only way to restore peace and harmony. Yet, as recent events remind us, artificial intelligence can sometimes be more caring than the human kind.
Human nature is, of course, an incredibly complex thing. The species that created the sublime beauty of Michelangelo’s David and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is the same one responsible for the Rwandan genocide. There is no pre-set dosage for good and bad traits, no perfect combination of compassion and ruthlessness.
So far, this unpredictable jumble of behaviour has been all we’ve got, and it hasn’t always served us well. Nor does it always serve those who’ve been most dependent on the kindness of human caretakers, such as the cows at Canada’s largest dairy farm, Chilliwack Cattle Sales.
These animals suffered horrific abuse at the hands of eight people. And as the CBC reports, the farm’s management allegedly knew but did nothing to stop it.
And the abuse at Chilliwack Cattle is not the rare event that most of us would like to pretend. A look at recent investigations by Mercy for Animals Canada proves that, as a species, we haven’t come as far as we’d like to think. True, there are many farmers and breeders that care for their animals well. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that those shocking undercover videos only represent the findings of one small organization in one country.
But then, in sharp contrast, comes the news of a dairy farm with robots in charge. Not in charge, perhaps, since the farm’s owners are decidedly human. As the CBC reports, though, everything from milking to feeding is handled by robots, with the cows being “taught to enter one of six robotic pens when they are ready to be milked, whether that’s mid-morning or in the middle of the night.”
With the help of a laser, the robotic milker can identify the unique udder of every cow. It can also test the milk and act as an early-warning system, sending a text message “when a cow shows early signs of illness or is ready to become pregnant.”
All of this relies, of course, on the humans who oversee the robots. But short of machine breakdowns or software glitches, the robots pose no deliberate threat to the animals. Electronic arms won’t beat them with rakes, won’t kick or punch them or tie chains around their necks to drag them when they’re injured and in pain.
Clearly, we don’t want a world devoid of living contact. Animals and humans alike are social creatures. We need physical contact to thrive.
Yet sometimes, as the events at Chilliwack Cattle show, the cool, impersonal touch of a robot can be far more comforting than the touch of a human hand.
We may never find that elusive balance, that stage of evolution where our crueler instincts are a thing of the past. And robots are hardly a perfect answer, since they can’t (at least not yet) replace the positive side of human contact.
But I’m still glad HAL refused to open that pod bay door.
S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.