The New Sorcerers (and Their Apprentices)

Now it so happened, as Goethe told it, that a sorcerer of superlative technical skills took on an apprentice, eager and diligent in his study of the master’s teachings.  One day, while the master was away, the apprentice, perhaps overly confident in his newly-acquired command of certain techniques, decided to use these powers for a practical, if mundane, purpose.  As a pupil, he was obligated to perform certain tedious household chores, most detestably the endless hauling of pails of water from the nearby stream.  Why not animate, say, a broom to do this tiresome chore?  His acquired powers were already sufficient to perform this transformation, and the broom, hurrying off and then returning forthwith, brought back two pails of water.  The apprentice, proud of his powers and amazed at the prompt carrying out of his command, was nonetheless startled when the broom quickly hurried off again, and again, and again, speedily delivering a dozen of pails of water. Panicking, the apprentice tried to destroy the broom by cutting it in half–only to witness each half becoming a whole, and both scurrying off now to begin bringing twice as many pails!  The house was flooded, with no relief in sight, when the Master suddenly returned.  In consternation, he angrily admonished his over-confident pupil for using such powers which wiser ones would willingly refrain from unleashing.  The Master, acutely aware of the dangers of such misuse, nonetheless calmly de-animated the brooms back to their original purpose.

Sorcery, a kind of “pre-science,” consists of specific techniques purportedly capable of attaining certain ends.  If one wished to destroy a foe, one employed imitative (homeopathic) magic (“like produces like”) — the infamous voodoo doll being the most well-known example.  If the victim shortly thereafter sickened and died, the efficacy of the magical technique was “confirmed.”

We now fast-forward to September 30 of this year, when techno-wizard Elon Musk introduced his new “humanoid” robot named Optimus, which promptly demonstrated to a rapt audience the abilities to walk, carry objects, and water plants.  Musk announced, with his typical promoter’s enthusiasm, that he wanted to perfect and mass-produce Optimus as soon as possible, predicting that the “humanoid” would prove even more profitable than his Tesla line of electric cars.

Entrepreneurial capitalist Musk is unlikely to question his commitment to a rapidly expanding world of “artificial intelligence.”  (An entirely surveilled, behavior-modified and jobless humanity?).  At the same time, he has acknowledged some unforeseen dangers, and the urgent necessity for some regulation of their production and use.  A techno-futurist with an awareness of what is coming, he has joined with such techno-scientific luminaries as Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates in warning that AI, if insufficiently contained and regulated, constitutes “the largest existential threat to humanity.”

Since perpetual war by now seems (almost) “normalized,” Pentagon contracts promote the myriad capabilities of robot-soldiers on the battlefield.  Musk has thus urgently warned of an imminent threat from “killer robots” (The Guardian, 17 July, 2017).  Human Rights Watch has long taken this seriously enough to launch their Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, noting that such machines “would be able to select and engage targets without meaningful human control” (The Guardian, 9 Apr. 2015).   (One is hard-pressed not to mention that “human control” of unmanned, automated drones, armed with Hellfire missiles, did not restrain their over-use–even by participant-executioner President Obama!) .  Self-replicating robots already exist, even “self-reconfigurable modular” ones which can re-arrange their design and self-repair–capacities obviously advantageous under battlefield conditions.

While Goethe’s fable of out-of-control “animated” brooms seems incredibly remote from our present reality, he did prophetically warn of the ease with which empowered instruments can overpower their very creators, wreaking uncontrollable havoc once unleashed.  The profiteering hubris of the current “roboteers,” audaciously claiming an entitlement to introduce a never-ending stream of hi-tech assaults on human independence and dignity, uncannily exhibit the same disastrous grandiosity of Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein.

Image credit: Sorcerer’s broom from Disney’s Fantasia.

Intellectual historian and psychoanalytic anthropologist, William Manson (Ph.D., Columbia) has published numerous scholarly books and papers, and is a longtime contributor to Dissident Voice. Read other articles by William.