Self-Motivation
David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Actor
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Management
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
Learn
from the world's big
thinkers
Start Learning

Will robots free people from slavery?

Even if automation makes human trafficking economically inefficient, that alone won't end this unethical practice.

  • Robotic automation may one day make slavery economically inefficient, but automation does not spring forth fully formed.
  • An interim period of piecemeal coverage may leave many at-risk, low-skilled workers in danger of exploitation.
  • Nor can automation sate the political and social motives for slavery found in some societies.


An estimated 40.3 million people suffer today in slavery. Living a shadowed existence between lawful states, victims yield their captors $150 billion in illegal profits every year. This most wretched of facts is made even more haunting when you consider that 1 in 4 victims are children.

"We know that if there are 40 million people in modern slavery, only tens of thousands of victims are being helped, assisted and supported, whether through the criminal justices system or through victim support systems," Fiona David, Walk Free Foundation's executive director of global research, told CNN. "It's a massive gap that we have to close."

Thanks to the efforts of governments and NGOs, that gap is closing.

There are fewer slaves in the world today, per capita, than at any other point in history. Chattel slavery, the kind that lead to the Atlantic slave trade, was once a human universal. Today, it is abolished and morally condemned. Other forms of slavery, such as child labor and forced marriage, are in decline. And the United Nations has set a target to end modern slavery by 2025.

We are closer to ending this morally bankrupt practice than at any point in our history. Will the final push come in the form of robotic automation?

Robots to end slavery?

A map showing the estimated prevalence of modern slavery (per 1,000 people) according to the Global Slavery Index's 2018 findings. The 10 countries with the highest prevalence are noted.

(Photo: Global Slavery Index)

The idea is simple enough. Slavery is an economic crime. Its perpetrators lure desperate and disenfranchised peoples with the promise of a livelihood. They then force their victims to do repetitive, physically demanding, and often dangerous work while cutting them off from any physical, social, and lawful means of escape.

By design, machines perform repetitive tasks without concerns for the dangers or physical demands. In richer countries, they are already employed in industries associated with chattel slavery abroad, such as mining, farming, and textiles. As the thinking goes: if automation were to become widespread and cost effective enough, it would eradicate the need for cheap human labor and render slavery economically inefficient.

At End Slavery Now, Cazzie Reyes details how such a future might play out. Currently, China's factories are losing their traditional source of cheap labor as worker wages and education levels rise. To address this labor gap, the country purchased 56,000 robots in 2014 and plans to rapidly increase factory automation.

As this shift continues, low-skilled workers may "be moved from completing routine to more value-added tasks" or even new jobs in robot manufacturing.

Robots may also challenge another form of slavery: sexual exploitation. In the Netherlands alone about 4,000 people are coerced into the sex trade every year. Worldwide 4.8 million people are sexually exploited with no means of escape, the vast majority young women and children.

But brothels have emerged in Europe and Japan that provide companionship with realistic sex dolls. In the U.S., Houston almost became the first city to open a robot brothel, but its city council banned renting sex dolls in October of last year (though businesses can still sell them for home use).

In Love and Sex with Robots, A.I. researcher David Levy argues that such institutions can reduce prostitution rates. As the dolls become more lifelike, he sees the world's oldest profession going the way of match girls and lamp lighters.

Futurists Ian Yeoman and Michelle Mars divine a similar future in their paper "Robots, men, and sex tourism." By 2050, they write, Amsterdam's famed red-light district will be dominated by hyper-realistic sex androids. The androids would not only allow the sex industry to grow but also curb the spread of STIs and improve the government's ability to regulate human trafficking.

Sold down the river

Many manufacturing jobs, like this silk factory near Dalat, Vietnam, are at risk as automation enters the ASEAN-5 countries.

Photo credit: Francesco Paroni Sterbini / Flickr

As automation spreads into new territories and industries, it may make slavery less economically efficient in the long run. In the short term, however, slavery will remain expedient, and economic expedience, not efficiency, has been a main driver of slavery throughout history.

That's the future predicted by Verisk Maplecroft's "Human Rights Outlook 2018" report.

The report estimates that over the next two decades, 56 percent of workers in ASEAN-5 manufacturing industries will lose their jobs to automation. With few skills and fewer options, displaced workers can become targets of the exploitative practices that lead people into slavery and human trafficking.

The ASEAN-5 countries already rank high on the Modern Slavery Index, and the report forecasts further deterioration. It is estimated that Vietnam alone could see 36 million people seeking new jobs in the coming decades, creating ample opportunities for human traffickers.

"Displaced workers without the skills to adapt or the cushion of social security will have to compete for a diminishing supply of low-paid, low-skilled work in what will likely be an increasingly exploitative environment," Alexandra Channer, Verisk Maplecroft's human rights strategy lead, said in a release. "Without concrete measures from governments to adapt and educate future generations to function alongside machines, it could be a race to the bottom for many workers."

Similarly, the belief that robotic sex workers will significantly reduce demand for sexual exploitation, let alone drive it to zero, is hardly universal. Opponents argue that sexual exploitation is as much about degradation as sex, that humans will always prefer other humans, and that there are lines that robotic sex peddlers won't cross but human traffickers will (i.e., the exploitation of children).

"So we're not just having a conversation here about objects that people rub on their genitals. This is not what this is about," Kathleen Richardson, director of the Campaign Against Sex Robots, told Feminist Current. "[Sex robots are] piggybacking off on those real lived experiences of real human women being dehumanized by the commercial sex trade."

Social and political death

Nor is slavery only an economic crime. It has many social and political causes that automation cannot address.

For example, North Korea has instituted a system of state-sanctioned force labor. Its government has arrested tens of thousands of people, typically for crimes against the state, and sentenced to work in labor camps. These prisoners work dangerous, long hours in mines, factories, and logging camps and may even be exported to places like China and Russia, where they yield North Korean leaders between $1.2 and $2.3 billion dollars annually.

While automation may, one day, reduce demand for North Korea's macabre exports, it is unlikely the totalitarian regime would do away with this system in the name of economic efficiency.

That's because this form of slavery is as much political as it is profitable. It removes dissidents from political life and places them in a type of social purgatory. Citizens who are tired, hungry, weak, and enslaved in a strange land make for poor revolutionaries.

Additionally, our modern definition of slavery has expanded to practices beyond chattel slavery. It now includes any practice that reduces a person to the statues of property and deprives them of their right to choose, such as forced marriage. However, forced marriage is as much a social and cultural transaction as it is an economic one. In countries that value such institutions, no machine could replace that form of social control.

Will automation be part of the solution?

Truth is, we don't know. As Pauline Oosterhoff, research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, writes: "The fact is that we do not have a sure-fire way to eradicate slavery in the existing economy. We are not really sure what role previous rounds of automation have played in either eliminating or encouraging modern-day slavery, and we do not know what effects new developments in automation and artificial intelligence will have."

Automation may make reducing chattel slavery easier in some states, but it can't inoculate societies from the social and political ills that create opportunities for exploitation. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, contemporary abolitionists focus their efforts on these strategies:

Better law enforcement. Governments can better provide law enforcement with the tools to combat human trafficking and streamline the court processes and laws to make legal efforts more consistent and effective.

Transparent supply chains. Modern businesses have complex international supply chains that may intersect with slavery — some even argue it's impossible to make a smartphone that doesn't rely on child labor. In addition to transparency laws, abolitionist call for mandating supply chain investigations and making ethical sourcing a central business practice.

More comprehensive and widespread reporting. Reports that name governments, businesses, and individuals complicit in slavery help lessen demand as such public shaming leads to social opprobrium and economic consequences.

Public education. Exposing abuses to the public educates them on modern slavery practices. This can help at-risk communities from falling prey to exploitation, and move constituents to support funding rehabilitation and prevention programs.

Will these efforts close the slavery gap? It will be difficult, especially by 2025, but at no other point in history has the will and the means to do so existed in such abundance. And we have 40.3 million reasons to make sure we do.

Hulu's original movie "Palm Springs" is the comedy we needed this summer

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.

Gear
  • Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
  • As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
  • The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
Keep reading Show less

Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

Keep reading Show less

Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
Mind & Brain
  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
  • This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.

Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

Economists show how welfare programs can turn a "profit"

What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?

A homeless man faces Wall Street

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
  • It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
  • The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
Keep reading Show less
Videos

Unhappy at work? How to find meaning and maintain your mental health

Finding a balance between job satisfaction, money, and lifestyle is not easy.

Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast