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The parallels between Vonnegut's science fiction and our modern-day world

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Seventy-one years ago, Kurt Vonnegut published his first novel. It was titled "Player Piano." The book was based, in part, on Vonnegut's time working at General Electric, and it tells a dystopian tale of a society whose workers have been completely replaced by machines. Well, as the workers' discontent grows, they revolt. They destroy the machines, only to rebuild them because the workers miss them, the convenience, the quality of life they provide.

Well, if this plot summary has got you thinking about any parallels between Vonnegut's fiction and our modern-day world, Robin Murphy is one step ahead of you. Murphy is a roboticist who writes in a piece out this week in the journal Science Robotics, quote, "the overarching theme in "Player Piano" is that individual intelligence and creativity is a comforting lie that we tell ourselves about why we are irreplaceable by machines." Robin Murphy, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ROBIN MURPHY: Well, thank you.

KELLY: I want to ask how you stumbled upon this book. And what about it got you thinking?

MURPHY: Well, a few years ago, I had - of course, I had read "Slaughterhouse-Five," but somebody had said something - oh, Vonnegut, yeah, his first book, "Player Piano," has automation robots. And I was like, what? And so I went back and reread it and said, holy cow. He saw a lot of things coming.

KELLY: Like what? And start maybe with the character named Rudy. Just describe briefly what happens to him and how that may have - we may be seeing some of that play out today.

MURPHY: Well, Rudy is an interesting character. He's a minor character, but he shows up at key moments. And he used to be, or still is, the best machinist there in Ilium, N.Y. But he lost his job, being very proud of how he lost his job because they had a robot learn by demonstration. He showed the robot how he did it. They were able to record his motions, learn from it, and now they didn't need him anymore. So he was very, very proud. But on the other hand, he's very distraught, you know?

KELLY: Superfluous, yeah. He's superfluous now because he's trained the robot to do what he does but even better.

MURPHY: Yeah. And he's got a universal basic income. So Vonnegut had that going through there. And another nice point about - so Rudy is talking to a couple of the engineers who are kind of in this protected class of people, right? You know, you're only replacing the skilled workers. But toward the middle of the book, Paul, the lead engineer, begins to realize that the engineers are getting replaced by automation as well, that nobody is really that irreplaceable.

KELLY: Go back to the universal basic income point. This is, why would you pay a human to do something if they have rendered themselves superfluous, if you don't need them to do any more of their work because the robot can do it? I mean, that is something we've seen play out. There have been some experiments with universal basic income in various places in the world. Do you see that gaining more traction as robots and AI gain more traction?

MURPHY: Well, it certainly comes up, you know, as an ethical thing about, well, robot displacement versus robot replacement of workers and the impact on society. And wouldn't it be great if everybody had universal basic income? And Vonnegut was definitely not in the category that that was a win-win situation; that work added dignity, added purpose, added a great outlet for creativity. And he somewhat implies that we may - there would be, like, eventually the innovation would tap out. If we kept just replacing people with automation, we wouldn't go to the next step beyond.

KELLY: So in the end, do you think Kurt Vonnegut was unusually prescient, or was the writing always on the wall for some of these things?

MURPHY: I personally think he was remarkably prescient. This was the first time we really saw this level of detail about robots replacing people. And yet in a positive way, it's nobody's doing it to subjugate people or to put them out of work deliberately. They're trying to raise the standard of living. But how trying to make the world a better place, sometimes we can trip over ourselves doing that.

KELLY: Robin Murphy, professor of computer science and engineering at Texas A&M University, thank you.

MURPHY: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: February 24, 2023 at 11:00 PM CST
A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Mary Louise Kelly.
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.