It’s just a ruin in a field now, but in 15th-century England, Boxley Abbey was a hotspot for the faithful. Pilgrims would travel from across the land to see a statue of Christ on the cross that was housed in the monastery and known as the Rood of Grace. On holy days, the Christ would come alive, with a contemporary account describing how the figure hypnotized crowds with its ability to:
“shake and stirre the hands and feete, to nod the head, to rolle the eies, to wag the chaps, to bende the browes […] shewing a most milde, amiable, and smyling cheere and countenance.” 1
During Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, when the riches of the Church were being confiscated in the name of religious conformity, the Rood was removed and its secrets laid bare. Inspectors discovered that protruding from Christ’s back was a mess of “wire [and] old rotten sticks,” which the monks had used to operate it from afar. The statue was taken to London and, during a sermon outside St Paul’s Cathedral, broken into pieces by an angry crowd, to put an end its “great idolatrie” once and for all.
Stories like this are strange and familiar. They show that robots have been shocking society for far longer than we usually think. To us they seem a modern phenomenon, but for centuries, the rich and powerful have been building automata to amuse themselves and awe the masses. Sometimes, though, we forget about the strings that are being pulled.
Look at the news from last month that the police force of Dubai has hired its “first robotic cop.” The bot in question is about the size and shape of a human, but with wheels for legs, cameras for eyes, and a tablet embedded in the middle of its chest. During press events, the robot was pictured shaking hands and saluting dutifully. One officer commented: “These kinds of robots can work 24/7. They won't ask you for leave, sick leave or maternity leave. It can work around the clock.”
It’s all rubbish of course. Dubai’s robot — an off-the-shelf model built by Spain’s Pal Robotics — won’t be doing any real work. It’s a tablet on wheels, designed to trundle around tourist centers and dole out directions. The same can be said of many other high-profile bots — like Pepper, or various “home hub” robots. The work they do is usually just that of a mobile phone or a security camera. Occasionally, if they’re big enough, they’ll knock over a child, just to break up the routine.
But as in 15th-century England, these particular robots are serving another, more important purpose. Historical accounts of the Rood of Grace are divided over whether or not pilgrims were actually fooled by the mechanical Christ. Did they believe they were witnessing a miracle, or were they just impressed by the technology and what it represented: the power and wealth of the Church.
Similarly, although the practical uses of Dubai’s new robot are limited, as a symbol it’s potent. The government of the United Arab Emirates is currently pursuing its “Vision 2021” strategy — a plan to shift the country’s economy away from oil-dependence to a diverse mix of technologically advanced industries. Part of this involves embracing automation, from artificial intelligence to driverless cars and drones. And, yes, that will include robots working for the police, but they won’t be humanoid because that’s not practical. They’ll be like this CCTV-equipped self-driving car; one that Dubai’s police force is also testing — just with less fanfare.
Many robots we see today are simply avatars of larger economic and technological forces. It is absolutely certain that in the years to come, the tools of automation (including the robots we don’t see; hidden away in factories and warehouses) will destroy some jobs, create others, and dramatically reshape societies around the world. Whether or not governments can stop these changes harming workers is another question. Although lots of news coverage of robots and AI veers between wild apocalyptic predictions and a sort of bemused wonderment, we need to split the difference and consider the real, unexciting challenges ahead — most of which will have political, not technological, solutions.
Just like the congregants in Boxley Abbey, the questions we should be asking when we see these marvels are: who is pulling the strings here, and what is it they want from us?
1 The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument Over What Makes Living Things Tick, Jessica Riskin