“The robots are working…”

We’ve spoken a lot about the connection between robots and forced labour (the word “robot” is taken directly from the Czech word for work). We’ve asked how ethical it is to ask machines to do unpaid work for us. We’ve wondered if these machines have fun while learning to play human games, or if it’s all just a tedious day job.

But today’s public conversation with artist Sebastian Schmieg showed that, of course, behind every clever algorithm lies a lot of hidden human labour (mostly poorly paid or unpaid, depending on just how “clever” the programmers are).

So when I see the little dialog box “the robots are working” pop up as I generate Bach-like études (which become more chaotic and less Bach-like as randomness is increased) from a simple MIDI input, I wonder:

Who and where are these robots? Are they humans, machines, or cyborgs? Do they ever wonder who or where I am? Can they hear the music they are composing on my behalf? Did they sign up for this? Are they getting paid? Are they having fun?

I fear I can answer the last two questions myself.

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