Where the Robots Are Always Watching

If you haven’t watched the BBC show Humans (also broadcast on America’s AMC), what are you waiting for? It’s brilliant. Great acting. Great writing. Great themes.

Go watch now. (Well, wait until you finish reading this post, of course, then go watch.)

Yesterday I imagined a not-too-distant future where AI-powered baby monitors become the third parent through constant surveillance and big-data-informed parenting advice. On the show Humans, it’s not a baby who is monitored, but William Hurt’s character, Dr. George Millican, an aging computer scientist with early Alzheimer's who is surveilled by a well-meaning (but humorless and emotionless) robot nurse named, Vera, who constantly monitors his health and behaviors.

William Hurt and Rebecca Front,  Humans

William Hurt and Rebecca Front, Humans

What quickly emerges is a kind of private hell as Dr. Millcan is constantly poked and prodded by his robot tormentor. He’s understandably miserable. It’s as if all his autonomy has been stripped away and he is at the mercy of what the programmers (those working for the health agency who presumably pay his medical bills) have decided are acceptable behaviors for someone in his condition.  

First they controlled they robots. Then they controlled the humans.

Yesterday I suggested that children raised with the powerful influence of big data and AI might slowly become remarkably similar (regression towards the mean of what data tells us is the ideal "human"); today I write of my fear of a future in which those who own the robots and the data (health insurance companies, in this case) have the power and the heavy hand to take away our autonomy and control us through the robots (AI, ultimately). 

This is happening now. Health insurance companies that will only pay for a person to use a CPAP machine (which aids in things like sleep apnea) if it is used a certain amount each night (and they know how often it’s being used because the machine is always connected and "sending home" usage reports).

It's just like robot Vera, only it doesn’t look like a robot. Or a human. But it pokes and prods its human the same way to move the human where and how the code says to go. The human's compliance is the final step of the code's execution. It's the "then" of the "if/then" function. "If I threatened to raise your healthy premiums, then you'll use the CPAP ever night for at least 5 hours."

Eventually, Dr. Millican pushes back (hooray, human!) but all does not go well when the robot tattles and the ones with power use it. But that's for you to discover in the brilliant show that Humans is. So go watch now; I'll still be here when you get back.