Readers of this blog will doubtless be cognisant of the threat to the global labour market that some commentators have ascribed to the rise of robots in recent years. And this makes perfect sense: as robots become ever-cheaper and the tasks that they are capable of grow more sophisticated, it is only logical to expect them to encroach on territories that have up to now been regarded as a solely human domains.
However, a recent speech by Sébastien Fanti – a lawyer hailing from the Swiss canton of Valais, the birthplace of former FIFA supremo Sepp Blatter – has forced us to reassess even our own predictions of the extent to which robots may be able to supplant humans in the workforce. Speaking to the Lexing legal conference in Shanghai, Fanti stressed the urgency of creating a legal and ethical framework to govern worker bots, warning: ‘In ten years[‘ time] I think that robots will be suffering abuse. We need laws, otherwise there will be a free-for-all.’
This framework has become necessary because it is now clear that far from merely replacing unskilled or semi-skilled manual workers, robots are: (i) fast becoming capable of jobs that require them to confront ethical dilemmas; and (ii) likely to become judged by humans as conscious, and therefore worthy of rights. (Marcus du Santoy, professor for the public understanding of science at the University of Oxford, has explicated this second point particularly cogently.)
The crux is clear: if robots are developing along a precipitously steep trajectory – one which encompasses ethics and consciousness – then the implications for the global labour market are unreal. This is particularly true if in our rush towards post-humanity, we are content to let certain preconceptions – perhaps even expectations – slide.
In the not-so-distant future, will it really matter if our therapist is a robot if its algorithms are effective enough to generate ameliorative responses? Is it impossible for artificial intelligence to come up with fashion designs that the relevant audiences regard as iconic? And given that so many people let their children be raised by electronic devices, would we really be troubled as much as we would predict about them being given bot-style pastoral care? These are unlikely to remain academic questions: a technology-defined civilisation periodically undergoes discomfiting changes, even if these risk throwing billions of people onto the breadlines.
Regular readers of this blog will be aware of our CSO’s curious relationship with modern sitcoms; having spent much of the 1990s and 2000s blagging away sketchily on the topic of Friends, he recently dipped his toes back into the waters of industrial laughter with a sampling of brutal NYC depression-com 2 Broke Girls.
But away from post-development America and Europe, the sitcom is still very much a reflection of dreams, and there are arguably none dreamier than iPartment (‘Love Apartment’), a series co-produced by the Shanghai Film Group Corporation and the Shanghai Film Studio and (perhaps predictably) set in China’s largest city by population. iPartment, which charts the adventures of ten (mostly) twentysomethings as they negotiate life in a brand-new apartment block that looks like something out of Sim City 3000. Chinese audiences have been rapt by the blossoming romance between Massachusetts Institute of Technology Graduate Lu Zhanbo (played by ‘Kingscar’ Jin Shi Jia) and billionaire banker scion Lin Wanyu (the charismatic Evonne Zhao); iPartment fans are presently looking forward to the fourth season since its 2009 launch.
In the West, iPartment has mostly made plagiarism-related headlines for some alleged shared characteristics with hit US sitcoms, with even a series spokesperson riffing on the fine line between copying and ‘homage’. But while it would be unrealistic to deny that there is more than a shot of Central Perk et al in iPartment’s characters, clothing and perhaps even entire scenes, the Jiangxi TV-pioneered show is much more interesting for what it tells us about modern China:
1. McProperty Bubble. The Shanghai apartment block where much of iPartment is set could be almost anywhere in today’s China – and therein lies the problem. Anonymous crash urbanisation has become the norm in the PRC, with Chinese property speculation a probably lead cause of a global recession coming to a country near you at some point in the late 2010s or 2020s.
2. Aspiration or Propaganda? On one level, iPartment reflects a dynamic and immensely confident country which is also drowning in consumerism; in this respect, the corporate sponsorship by Taiwanese computer companies and Italian spirits manufacturers is symbolic. But the sitcom also arguably functions as (indirect) cultural propaganda which has even less to do with the lives of most Chinese people than the equivalent American sitcoms accurately depicted their own populations.
3. Hybrid Westernisation? The iPartment environment is no hutong. But despite the overtly Western veneer, at least some of the content would appear unusual to contemporary audiences outside Asia. The gentle situational humour, strong sense of group solidarity and gradualist love dimension mean that iPartment will probably remain a predominantly local phenomenon.