The Robot Apocalypse is Already Here

But the robots are not what you think, argues Gabriele Contessa

In one of the most haunting episodes of Black Mirror, ‘Metalhead’, a woman flees through a post-apocalyptic landscape hounded by an implacable quadrupedal robot. While killer robots are a trope of science fiction, what makes ‘Metalhead’ particularly unsettling is that the robot in question is not some advanced technological artifact from a distant future—it is inspired by the robots created by Boston Dynamics, whose promotional videos routinely make the rounds on social media. Watching the Boston Dynamics robots perform mundane tasks such as opening a door or getting back on their feet in a manner that is, at once, comical and menacing, one cannot help but wonder what would happen if one of them were to go rogue. As we become capable of producing machines that are increasingly intelligent, capable, and autonomous, many worry that a robot apocalypse might be nigh. What if, one day in the not-too-distant future, the robots decide to hunt us down like the unrelenting robot in ‘Metalhead’ or take over the world like Skynet in the Terminator franchise?

While these are interesting and important questions, they may be distracting us from an even more vital and urgent question—what if the robots have already taken over? Of course, if you think that robots are machines held together by nuts and bolts, that question might sound ridiculous. Roombas are not about to rule the world any time soon. However, what makes robots such as the one in ‘Metalhead’ so threatening is not so much their physical make-up. Instead, it’s the combination of their superhuman powers with what we might call their semi-autonomy—their ability to pursue the goals set for them by their creators outside the control of their creators (or anyone else, for that matter). And we humans have already created artifacts that display that same formidable combination of characteristics—the modern business corporation.

At first, the claim that corporations are robots might sound ridiculous. Despite the legal fiction that sees them as artificial persons, corporations are just organizations made up of humans and, except in robot anime, people cannot combine to form a robot. More importantly, according to the standard view, modern corporations are controlled by their managers, which means that, unlike robots, they do not operate semi-autonomously. However, this view overestimates the extent to which managers control corporations in two respects. First, the size and organizational complexity of the modern business corporation limits the ability of its managers to fully control it. Most of the actions of a corporation are the result of decisions taken by its lower-level employees or, more and more often, by sophisticated algorithms that gather and process vast amounts of data that no human mind could handle. The day-to-day operations of most large business corporations are increasingly controlled by artificial intelligence rather than by any of their human employees.

The second limit on the ability of managers to control corporations is more subtle. While, on paper, the managers might seem to exert a great deal of control over the most crucial decisions of the corporation, in practice, their control is subject to significant constraints. Even those actions of corporations that are ostensibly the result of the decisions of their managers are, on closer scrutiny, not under the full control of those managers. The managers of large publicly traded business corporations typically report to a board of directors, which, in turn, reports to the corporation’s shareholders. In this context, it is not entirely clear who (if anyone) is ultimately in control of the corporation. Matters are further complicated by the fact that the shareholders of many large corporations are, increasingly, other corporations (with the “Big Three” index funds controlling a quarter of the votes of the Fortune 500 companies). As a result of this complex governance structure, the position of the managers of the corporation is analogous to that of the crew of the spacecraft Discovery in 2001: A Space Odyssey. While the crew might seem to be in control of the spacecraft, that appearance turns out to be deceptive. When some crew members suspect that the Discovery’s on-board computer, HAL, might be malfunctioning and plot to disconnect it, HAL proceeds to systematically kill the crew in order to protect its mission. The crew’s apparent control over the Discovery was illusory—it only extended insofar as the actions of the crew members were consistent with HAL’s own goals. As soon as their actions conflicted with those goals, it became obvious that the crew members were, in fact, both powerless and dispensable. The control exerted by managers over the corporation is similarly illusory. The CEOs of corporations know full well that, if they were to consistently act in a way that does not advance the interests of the corporation, they would eventually lose their job and be replaced by someone who would pursue those interests. The CEOs only have control over the corporation insofar as their actions and decisions are consistent with the corporation’s own goals. The point, of course, is not to excuse the actions and decisions of managers or to exempt them from their moral responsibilities. The point is that, while, on paper, the managers of a corporation might seem to have full control of it, in practice they can only exert their control within the narrow confines of the pursuit of the goals of the corporation, which makes their control as illusory as that of the crew of the Discovery over the spacecraft.

Even if I have managed to persuade you that corporations might be robots after all, you might still think that it’s ridiculous to suggest that corporations are intent on taking over the world or destroying us. This objection, however, seems to stem from a misunderstanding of the nature of a robot apocalypse. Taking full control of the spacecraft and killing the crew were not among HAL’s ultimate goals—they are merely instrumental goals adopted by HAL in its single-minded pursuit of its ultimate goals. Similarly, the ultimate goals of corporations do not include taking over the world or destroying us either—insofar as they engage in conduct that harms us or our planet, they do so as a side-effect of their single-minded pursuit of their own ultimate goals.

Consider, for example, the case of climate change, which is one of the most serious challenges that humanity is currently facing and which, according to some, might even rise to the level of an existential threat for humans. While it is undeniable that governments and consumers bear some responsibility for the looming environmental catastrophe, corporations deserve much of the blame. Not only have corporations more or less directly contributed to climate change with their actions and decisions (for example, by doubling down on fossil fuel extraction and consumption long after the threat of climate change had been well understood), but they have also been persistently carrying out disinformation campaigns to muddle the public debate about climate policy and they have been tirelessly lobbying governments and politicians to delay any meaningful action against climate change. As the case of climate change shows, corporations have not taken over by openly declaring themselves our overlords. They have done so by stealthily hijacking the political and judicial processes at every step of the way. And they have done so not because they aspire to rule the world but because, like the relentless robots in the Terminator movies, they are single-mindedly focussed on pursuing their own goals without any concern for the damages they might cause in the process.

Moreover, a robot apocalypse need not take the form of an existential threat to humanity. For example, in the Matrix franchise, the robots are more interested in extraction than destruction. They exploit unaware humans as alternative sources of energy by manipulating them into believing that they live a normal life in what is actually a massive simulation. In our world, corporations are similarly intent on exploiting and manipulating us. They exploit the most vulnerable among us as sources of cheap and precarious labor either by forcing them to act as independent contractors or by outsourcing production to countries with lower wages and weaker labor laws. And they exploit all of us as sources of data (often without our full knowledge or consent), which, then, they go on to use to slyly manipulate us, our values, our beliefs, and our decisions.

Can we still stop the robots even if, as I suggest, they have already taken over? In my most optimistic moments, I want to believe that we can, but, in order to do so, we need to act together and act decisively; and, to be able to do that, we must see the corporations for what they really are. And that’s not an easy feat given that, not unlike the deceitful robot in Ex Machina, corporations are constantly trying to convince us that they do really care about us and about the world we live in through their touching marketing campaigns, their affable social media presence, and their hypocritical displays of corporate social responsibility. Let’s not be fooled by their act. Let’s see them for what they really are—robots single-mindedly intent on pursuing their own goals without any regard for the collateral damage. Like traditional robots, corporations can be useful to us but only insofar as they can serve our collective goals without causing harmful side-effects in the process, but, if we can’t reprogram the existing corporations to do that, then we might need to pull the plug on them before it is too late.

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Gabriele Contessa is an Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. His main research interests are at the intersection of social epistemology, philosophy of economics, and political philosophy. He is currently working on a book that develops in more detail the arguments sketched in this essay. He tweets (sporadically) at @GabContessa