Has the Robot Uprising Already Happened?

Ask most people to describe a “robot,” and they’d probably start to describe something vaguely human-looking, maybe something a little metallic or shiny with limbs. Something like the Roboy. Or WALL-E. Or a robot factory worker in Detroit. Maybe, if someone’s being really creative, you might get an answer like the “Roomba" or something else that’s not even close to being anthropomorphic. And that’s why we've completely missed the first stage of the robot uprising – the robots of tomorrow will look nothing like humans. They will be swarming mini-bots that constantly change shapes, they will be robotic snakes, or they will be nanobots so small the naked eye can’t even see them.


Not convinced? Just ask Vinton G. Cerf, Google’s Internet evangelist and one of the co-inventors of the modern Internet, who recently asked, “What's a robot?” In a one-page essay, Cerf proceeds to argue that we’ve lost sight of what a robot really is. We’re still thinking of robots in terms of the original Rossum's Universal Robots from 1920’s Czechoslovakian science fiction writer Karel Čapek. And that concept of the robot has guided us for nearly a century through the Uncanny Valley of artificial intelligence to the humanoid Roboy of tomorrow.

Yet, according to Cerf, even something like a software program could be rightly considered a robot: "I would like to posit, however, that the notion of robot could usefully be expanded to include programs that perform functions, ingest input and produce output that has a perceptible effect." For example, take the high-frequency stock trading programs on Wall Street, capable of executing millions of trades per minute. Or, take the software systems that control the nation’s grids, or even a home heating system that controls the temperature of your house. Aren’t these, Cerf asks, just another form of “robot”?

And it's not just Vint Cerf who's re-thinking the notion of "robot." Ray Kurzweil has been one of the biggest proponent of something he often refers to as nanobots – small, invasive bots that travel through our human body, carrying out mini-operations to keep us healthier: "Within a couple of decades, we will have "nanobots" in our blood stream, basically small robots the size of blood cells, that will keep us healthy at the cellular and molecular level... These devices will be a billion times more powerful than they are today in 25 years, and will continue the accelerating path to radical life extension." Sound crazy? Well, one of the innovations unveiled at this year’s Davos event in Switzerland was the surgical snake robot – a surgical robot that slithers through the human body making repairs without the need for open surgery.

Kurzweil has also described the “utility fog” – swarms of nano-particles coordinating their actions with each other and capable of changing their shape on the fly:

"Nanotechnology is based on the concept of tiny, self-replicating robots. The Utility Fog is a very simple extension of the idea: Suppose, instead of building the object you want atom by atom, the tiny robots linked their arms together to form a solid mass in the shape of the object you wanted? Then, when you got tired of that avant-garde coffeetable, the robots could simply shift around a little and you’d have an elegant Queen Anne piece instead."

What is this, if not a version of the robot quorum sensing that thrilled audiences at TED? Imagine swarms of mini robots, flying around and coordinating actions together. At the TED 2012 event, these small, agile robots even managed to swarm together while playing the James Bond theme song.

As Edgar Allan Poe once wrote, the best place to hide something is right in plain sight. In this case, the robots have been hiding right in front of us - they've just been too small to notice. They are inside our computers, they are inside our houses, and soon, they will even be inside our bodies. They control our grids, they control our financial markets, and soon, they will control our health. That's right, while we were renting WALL-E for the nth time on Netflix, we completely missed the real robot uprising.

image: Robot Toys / Shutterstock

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Want to forge stronger social bonds? Bring beer.

New research shows that a healthy supply of locally-sourced beer helped maintain Wari civilization for 500 years.

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Beer is history's happiest accident. Though the discovery probably happened much earlier, our earliest evidence for beer dates back roughly 13,000 years ago. Around this time, the people of the Fertile Crescent had begun to gather grains as a food source and learned that if they moistened them, they could release their sweetness to create a gruel much tastier than the grains themselves.

One day a curious — or perhaps tightfisted — hunter-gatherer hid his gruel away for a safekeeping. When he returned, he found the bowl giving off a tangy odor. Not one to waste a meal, he ate it anyway and enjoyed an unexpected, though not unpleasant, sensation of ease. By pure happenstance, this ancestor stumbled upon brewing.

That's one possible origin story, but we know that our ancestors learned to control the process, and beer took a central role in Fertile Crescent civilizations — so central that Professor Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that beer, not bread, incentivized hunter-gatherers to relinquish their nomadic ways.

Beer may also be proof of a God who wants us to be happy (Dionysus?), because the beverage* would be independently rediscovered by peoples across the ancient world, including those in China and South America.

One such peoples, the pre-Inca Wari Civilization, made beer, specifically chicha de molle, a critical component in their religious and cultural ceremonies. In fact, a study published in Sustainability in April argues that the role was so important that beer helped keep Wari civilization intact for 500 years.

Brewing social capital

Twenty years ago, a team of archaeologists with the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, discovered a brewery in Cerro Baúl, a mesa in southern Peru that served as an ancient Wari outpost. The brewery contained original equipment, clay storage vessels, and compartments for milling, boiling, and fermentation.

The team recently analyzed these on-site vessels to uncover the secrets of the Wari brewing process. Removing tiny amounts of material found in the spaces between the clay, they were able to reconstruct the molecules of the thousand-year-old drink. They then worked alongside Peruvian brewers to recreate the original brewing process.**

Their molecular analysis revealed several key features of the beer: The clay used to make the vessels came from a nearby site; many of the beer's ingredients, such as molle berries, are drought resistant; and though alcoholic, the beer only kept for about a week.

These details suggest that Cerro Baúl maintained a steady supply of chicha, limited by neither trade nor fair weather, and became a central hub for anyone wishing to partake. The Wari would likely make such trips during times of festivals and religious ceremonies. Social elites would consume chicha in vessels shaped like Wari gods and leaders as part of rituals attesting to social norms and a shared cultural mythology and heritage.

"People would have come into this site, in these festive moments, in order to recreate and reaffirm their affiliation with these Wari lords and maybe bring tribute and pledge loyalty to the Wari state," Ryan Williams, lead author and head of anthropology at the Field Museum, said in a release. "We think these institutions of brewing and then serving the beer really formed a unity among these populations. It kept people together."

The Wari civilization was spread over a vast area of rain forests and highlands. In a time when news traveled at the speed of a llama, such distinct and distant geography could easily have fractured the Wari civilization into competing locales.

Instead, the researchers argue, these festive gatherings (aided by the promise of beer) strengthened social capital enough to maintain a healthy national unity. This helped the Wari civilization last from 600 to 1100 CE, an impressive run for a historic civilization.

Bringing people together (since 10,000 BCE)

A Mesopotamian cylinder seal shows people drinking beer through long reed straws. Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Of course, the Wari weren't the first civilization to use beer to reaffirm bonds and maintain their social fabric. Returning to the Fertile Crescent, Sumerians regarded beer as a hallmark of their civilization.

The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh tells of the adventures of the titular hero and his friend Enkidu. Enkidu beings as a savage living in the wilderness, but a young woman introduces him to the ways of civilization. That orientation begins with food and beer:

"They placed food in front of him,
They placed beer in front of him,
Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food,
And of drinking beer he had not been taught.
The young woman spoke Enkidu, saying:
"Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.
Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land."
Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,
He drank the beer — seven jugs! — and became expansive
and sang with joy.
He was elated and his face glowed.
He splashed his shaggy body with water
and rubbed himself with oil, and turned into a human
."

Tom Standage, who recounts this scene in his History of the World in 6 Glasses, writes: "The Mesopotamians regarded the consumption of bread and beer as one of the things that distinguished them from savages and made them fully human." Such civilized staples not only demarcated their orderly life from that of hunter-gatherers, they also served a key role in their culture's unifying mythology.

Furthermore, Standage notes, Sumerian iconography often shows two people sipping from waist-high jars through reed straws. The earliest beers were consumed in a similar fashion because technological limitations prevented baking individual cups or filtering the beverage. But the Sumerians had the pottery skills to make such cups and filter the dregs. That they kept the tradition suggests that they valued the camaraderie brought by the experience, a sign of communal hospitality and kinship.

The ancient Greek's similarly used alcohol as a means of maintaining social and political relationships — though their drink of choice was wine.

During symposiums, upper-class Greek men would gather for a night of drinking, entertainment, and social bonding. In Alcohol: A history, Rod Phillips notes that symposiums were serious affairs where art, politics, and philosophy were discussed throughout the night and could serve as rites of passage for young men. (Though, music, drinking games, and sex with prostitutes may also be found on the itinerary.)

Of course, we can amass social capital without resorting to alcohol, which has been known to damage social relationships as much as improve them.

In the 17th century, London's coffeehouses stimulated the minds of thinkers with their caffeine-laden drinks, but also served as social hubs. Unlike the examples we've explored already, these coffeehouses brought together people of different backgrounds and expertise, unifying them in their pursuit of ideas and truths. Thus, coffeehouses can be seen as the nurseries of the Enlightenment.

Relearning ancient lessons

The Field Museum archaeologists hope their research can help remind us the importance social institutions and cultural practices have in creating our common bonds, whether such institutions are BYOB or not.

"This research is important because it helps us understand how institutions create the binds that tie together people from very diverse constituencies and very different backgrounds," Williams said. "Without them, large political entities begin to fragment and break up into much smaller things. Brexit is an example of this fragmentation in the European Union today. We need to understand the social constructs that underpin these unifying features if we want to be able to maintain political unity in society."

So, grab a beer or coffee or tea, spend some time together, and raise a glass. Just try not focus too much on whether your friend ordered Budweiser's swill or an overpriced, virtue-signaling microbrew IPA.

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