Recently, before I could leave a comment on a blog post, I was asked to confirm that I was not a robot—by a robot! Like he could tell. Dutifully, I checked the little box next to “I’m not a robot, ” and after thinking about it for a few seconds, the robot pronounced me fully human—or, at least not a machine.
A few days later, I was reminded of this online interaction while watching the Imitation Game, the cinematic account of the life of mathematician Alan Turing. In the film, Turing, who cracked the Nazi Enigma Code during World War II with an early version of the supercomputer, is interrogated by a police officer after his own home was broken into. Police suspect he is hiding something, that he is a Soviet spy or worse.
After Turing tells his story, he invites the officer to play a “round” of the Imitation Game. “You get to judge, ” Turing says, “What am I? Am I a machine? Am I a person? Am I a criminal? Am I a war hero?”
I’m certainly no war hero. Nor a criminal. But the question of whether I am a machine or a person seems to be up for debate, and not just by robots. As the end of the year approached, I noticed that my work, my writing, even my household chores, had taken on a humanless quality. “MUST COMPLETE TASK, ” I repeated, over and over. Occasionally I froze up for no apparent reason. Most of the time I felt like my batteries were a little low.
The creative life can feel so mechanical when we get caught up in efficiency and productivity and strategy. Of course I should be diligent in doing the work of writing. Without my task list and timer, I don’t meet my writing objectives. But when I become all about my task list and timer, I become a joyless machine just pounding out word counts.
It’s not that machines can’t produce beautiful work. Alan Turing’s work in creating Christopher, the machine that ultimately took down the Nazi Regime in World War II, has not only lived on in memory but contributes toward greater and greater automation, toward a world where robots can evaluate and plan and create. Gone are the days where machines replaced only the “muscle work” of our society. Now, according to the video, Humans Need Not Apply, all our work—from service to creative to professional—is in jeopardy of being replaced.
Robots are even writing now, according to John Aziz in an article for The Week. And I don’t just mean writers acting like robots, either. “They’re certainly coming for journalists—in March this year  the Los Angeles Times published a piece written by automated software to report on an earthquake, ” Aziz explained. “But that is an automated story, from a template created by a human. For weather reports, financial reports, earthquake reports—things that can be written out from a template— this will probably become increasingly common, and faster and maybe more accurate than if it were done by humans.”
As a writer myself, I became concerned. I had always thought creativity shielded me from the automation takeover of the world. And though I sometimes shift into robot mode, I don’t want to be a robot. Or be replaced by one. I needed answers. I needed to know once and for all whether I should be planning for a career shift toward, oh, I don’t know, say personal assistant to a robot.
I needed to go straight to the source, so I grabbed my iPhone.
“Siri, are robots going to take over my job?”
“Let’s see, ” she replied. “I found this on the web for ‘are robots going to take over my job.’”
She was hedging. I pressed harder.
“No, I mean are you going to take over my job?” I asked.
“Darn it, Siri, don’t be coy, ” I said, shaking the phone a little.
“I’m sorry, ” she said, as if robots feel remorse.
“Are you really sorry?” I asked.
“I can’t answer that, ” she said. I knew it.
If robots are going to replace me, then surely some of them must be writers. Maybe even Siri herself.
“Siri, are you a writer?” I asked.
“No comment, Charity, ” she answered. Okay, Siri, if that’s how you want to play it.
“Read me one of your poems, Siri.”
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea, Charity. I write the fourth worst poetry in the universe.”
Ah ha! “Siri, who writes poetry worse than you?
“Let me check on that . . .” she said, as she did a quick sweep of the entire Internet. I have to admit, she is fast.
She cheerfully gave me a list of the worst poetry in the universe, teasing me with Vogon poetry from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe, which I guess every robot knows (even if I didn’t) is third worst. As long as I’m at least the fifth worst poet (and brush up on my cultural references), maybe I’m safe.
“Thanks Siri, you’ve relieved my mind, ” I said, feeling a little sheepish.
“My pleasure, ” she said. “As always.”
Maybe I’ve misjudged robots. I could learn a lot from Siri about detail, context, even humor. And as long as I can still play a little and experiment in my work and take a break now and then, maybe working like a robot isn’t all bad.
Unless of course you’re the one who gets stuck asking people if they are robots.
Not even a robot would want that job.
Photo by JL Watkins, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Charity Singleton Craig, co-author of On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life that Lasts.
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