When robots moonwalk: The value in human experience

Opinion by Mindy Perkins
June 1, 2015, 8:06 p.m.

I find it mind-boggling that humans have walked on the moon.

Not everybody agrees; I’ve received many a sidelong glance for voicing my conviction. In some ways I understand the what’s-the-big-deal attitude: After all, my generation was born decades after Neil Armstrong’s one small step, eons after Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. Growing up, we took for granted that being an astronaut was as real a career option as being a ballerina or a firefighter.

Yet to me there is something viscerally astounding about staring at a bright circle in the night sky, so distant and flat it could almost be a paper cutout, and realizing that Homo sapiens have flown to it, walked on it, even taken pieces of it back home. But a small part of me is disappointed that I did not live to see them do it — and may not live to see them do it again.  The economic costs of sending humans into space are phenomenal, and from that standpoint, we’re better off letting robots do the job.

The underlying issue here is that this utilitarian, practical view often assumes that there is no inherent value to aspects of human experience, such as the memories of those humans who walked on the moon and the wonderment of those people who knew they did it. That assumption is a mistake. Exploration, inspiration and fascination are at the core of human motivation and happiness. And while we can’t go to extravagant measures to indulge these feelings, we should not dismiss their weight as we make decisions in a roboticized future.

Modern society makes no secret of its obsession with happiness. The Declaration of Independence claims its pursuit as an inalienable right, and in the 1970s, the king of Bhutan declared it so important that he coined the term gross national happiness to emphasize its importance in societal development. Insofar as any of us values happiness, then we should also value experiences. Numerous studies conclude that good memories make us happier than any possessions ever could. The flipside is that bad experiences can also make us more unhappy than can bad purchases, because we are more invested in what we do than in what we own.

As our understanding of biology and technology improves, we are designing algorithms that can perform the same tasks that humans can, with greater predictability (and often reliability) than their error-prone makers. It’s not impossible to imagine that robots will eventually be able to do anything we can — more cheaply and more efficiently. At that point, humans will be obsolete from a utilitarian standpoint: the Internet Explorer of future technological progress.

Maybe by then, we’ll be ready to cede our lives and our society to our mechanical children. But we’re not extinct yet. As robots displace humans, there will pass an uncomfortable era as jobs we enjoy doing are outsourced to our silicon-based superiors. If a human loves science but a robot is better at it, should the human cease to pursue science because he or she can never keep up with the robot? Or is the happiness that the human garners from learning and researching sufficient that he or she should be allowed to continue the job? Time alone will determine how we answer this question.

Now, any discussion of a robot-dominated future would be incomplete without mention of “The Matrix.” I’d be inclined to worry less about robots trapping humans in virtual reality than humans voluntarily installing themselves there. My hope is that we will not become so enthralled with our imaginary universes that we lose a sense of awe in the exploration of the real world. I’ve argued that we ought to spend less time on our computer screens and more in our three-dimensional surroundings; I reiterate here that there is an entire universe out there for us to study. We could leave it to the robots, but along the way, we would lose a key sense of our own identity as humans and of our connection to the world that produced us.

Robots can do what humans cannot do. Yet it is for this reason that they do not inspire the same kind of appreciation as do the feats of other humans. As our creations, they are not subject to the limitations that we are, do not share our development from childhood to adult, as of yet do not share our emotions and convictions. We are inspired by other people because we see elements of ourselves in them — and by extension, we believe that we, too, could do as they do. We look at them and see hope. The vicarious experience of the astronauts’ triumph instills a certain pride in humankind, in what we can accomplish, in what we can dream. We should look for that sense of wonder and fascination in whatever we do. Our experiences have value — and so do we.

Contact Mindy Perkins at mindylp ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Mindy Perkins ‘15 is an opinions columnist for The Stanford Daily. As a proud Coloradoan and electrical engineering major, her ultimate goal is to apply engineering techniques to researching animals, as well as to draw inspiration from the natural world for engineering applications. In her free time, she enjoys writing, playing the viola and piano and drawing animals, dinosaurs and dragons. You can reach her at [email protected].

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