Will AI Robots Become the Next Slaves?

*THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS MATURE CONTENT | HUMAN TRAFFICKING PRACTICES

14 June 2021, By Rebecca Schembri, Harvard University Extension School

The new era of robot technology is spreading. Verified by experts in the field, most agree artificial intelligence and robotics will cause a paradigm shift in the job market this decade. The “trend toward increased obsolescence is likely to continue in the future,” explains Dr. John Danaher, a law professor in emerging technologies. “Humans are on the cusp of becoming no longer useful.” Although many argue that job displacement by machines will negatively impact human civilization, a welcome global consequence is that AI technology will reduce demand for human trafficking in forced labor, forced prostitution, forced military, and illegal human organ sales. With intense profitability in manufacturing, mining, and labor-intense jobs, AI robotics will make having human laborers unprofitable, replacing demand for forced human servitude and child slavery. Likewise, the incentivized use and profitability of AI sexbots will reduce demand for forced prostitution and sexual bondage. For terrorists, AI military technology will reduce the need for enslaved and child soldiers as autonomous weapons will kill on-command and on-target, costing less than a smartphone to acquire. And soon, traffickers will no longer seek humans for organs, but will be forced out of business by lack of demand for human organ sales because of advancements in robotic AI 3D bioprinting of human organs.

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According to the International Labour Organization, modern slavery “refers to situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, deception, and/or abuse of power.” It includes variations of captivity: traditional slavery, modern slavery, and forced servitude. The organization published a report showing that “…on any given day in 2016, there were likely to be more than 40 million men, women, and children who were being forced to work against their will under threat.” Nearly 25 million of the victims, a quarter of whom were children, were “forced to [labor] as domestic workers, on construction sites, in clandestine factories, on farms and fishing boats [and] in other sectors.” At the heart of such forced servitude and slavery is financial gain. Even in cases of compulsory public works “in which the state exploits individuals under its control for its own gain or that of companies in the private sector…64% of state-imposed labor was for economic development,” says trafficking expert Orlando Patterson. It all comes down to money: “Organized crime, like all business, is focused on making a profit, ensuring supply, and meeting demand,” writes human trafficking author Louise Shelley. Her focus on public policy, terrorism, corruption, and transnational crime makes her one of the leading voices in the study of humans held captive for gain. She says the labor trade is profitable “because it has financial advantages for many legal businesses.” Global demand for cheap production may not be likely to change, but allowing robots to be more profitable to companies and producers than humans—is.

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Passive and obedient workers, robots will become exceedingly desirable. Traditionally, “[c]onstruction companies can meet deadlines, farmers can harvest their crops before they spoil, and sweatshops can produce competitive products because they employ compliant trafficked laborers who cannot resist their employers’ demands,” says Shelley. According to industry experts, robotics will multiply this effect many times over to provide good, fast, smart labor and “compliant” workmanship. In fact, if labor companies don’t employ robotics, they may lose to their competition—it will become unprofitable to have human laborers.

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Although it may be a decade before AI robots become a substitute for domestic workers, bots can reduce the illegal servitude and slave industry immediately in the four next greatest areas of exploitation: construction, manufacturing, agriculture, and fishing. By giving owners access to more precise laborers who can work 24 hours a day, be retrofitted to any size, fit any task, and learn, intelligent bots will become preferable to humans. With AI, there is little hassle or cost aside from procurement since the bots can repair themselves or each other, and they can update instructions simultaneously. They are more intelligent than children and perform better. For example, a robot that replaces a stolen, abused, and enslaved child jockey can be lightweight, nimble, strategic, and determined to win. Fashioned to look like a child, the robotic AI will be excellent at racing camels for profit—it can calculate mathematical probabilities and set the fastest course for the finish line. Here, the win-win situation is that slaveholders will profit from using robots instead of illegally enslaved children, who will in turn become a liability, falling out of demand and hopefully being freed.

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Regarding forced prostitution, in 2016, 4.8 million people were sexually exploited, almost all of whom were female adults and female children. This tragedy will diminish as pimps encounter demand for perfectly looking, feeling, and agreeable AI sexbots, including child-like bots. In many cases of human trafficking for forced servitude and for modern slavery, the captors use the safety of the victims’ families as collateral to keep dominion over their captives. This will not be the case with robots. These legalized, around the clock, social “porn bots” are what Danaher calls “highly interactive.” As a leading expert in the legality of robotics, his research shows developers aim to “develop artificial intelligence…that would allow them to arouse someone on an emotional, intellectual level, beyond the physical.” Sentient and “sophisticated, human-like sex robots,” will provide empathic experiences to sex customers. As the technology expands and the public learns of paying for sex with legalized AI robots, the stigma and criminalization of seeking a prostitute will diminish and will incentivize human traffickers to use bots instead of female slaves. “Sex with a robot allows [users] to indulge and foster…incomplete, narcissistic desires in a way that legitimates such desire,” he says. A desire for some, customers could even “murder” the bot and abuse its corpse.

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Experts David Levy and Kathleen Richardson foresee sexbots disrupting the adult industry. Academic and sexbot advocate Levy “draws explicit parallels between the development of sex robots and sex work,” and Richardson, a professor and social anthropologist who campaigns against the use of human-like sexbots, argues “there is an inherent moral link between sexbots and the use of sex workers.” They agree the bots will perform within the field. Danaher concurs: “sex robots are poised to take over the adult sex work industry.” Their bodies feel like skin, they gesture and move like humans, and thus far they do not suffer emotional trauma. As legal participants, they offer customers a heightened non-criminalized experience. In cases of males seeking dominance and power over a woman, the robots can also act frigid and scared, making it possible for the user to believe he is abusing her. Since the sexbots will be designed for optimal sexual pleasure and for visual perfection, they may provide a better sexual experience than a live human sex slave would—one who is working against her will at threat of death, bodily harm, or assassination of her family members.

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If the sexbots are lucrative and legal, demand for them will replace or reduce demand for the illegal sex market. In short,” says Danaher, “sex robots …with humanlike touch, movement, and intelligence…are worth taking seriously.” The bots are a good substitution for human prostitutes. Although “There will be strong incentives to create intelligent sexbots,” because of society’s abhorrence toward child sex abuse, child-like sexbots will not likely pass legislation anytime soon but may be found on the black market, creating a new business opportunity for traffickers as they offer their customers a secretive experience of rape, torture, and sex with fake life-like children. Also, in the future oppressors may be able to 3D print their prostitution robots to any size and type they desire. Legalized robot prostitution is an incentive for the trafficking industry—under most circumstances the pimps won’t be in danger of getting arrested.

Since many human trafficking and forced labor victims are pushed into servitude because their captors are leveraging family members’ lives—in cases of terrorism, if the captives do not work for the militia, they will see their loved ones massacred. This happened in Rwanda when, according to experts, militia leaders forced Hutu group members to slaughter their neighboring Tutsi group and “between 500,000 and one million people, mostly Tutsis, were hacked to death, burned alive, or shot by their friends and neighbors as part of a sinister political operation.” This was done with coercion and threat. Innocents, including children, are recruited to militias and to military groups during civil wars and uprisings. Such victims suffer a trauma that cannot be erased—the number of lives physically and emotionally destroyed in child soldiering and in forced soldiering is immense. Although threatened “with death if they themselves [do] not kill,” these recruits face time in overcrowded jails after the war and must live with the emotional scarring of being forced to murder civilians, as happened in the Rwanda genocide: “Teachers killed students. Husbands killed wives,” wrote Robert Block in “The Tragedy of Rwanda”. The tragedy of forced soldiery is near unspeakable as innocent people, children included, are forced and coerced to kill, or be killed.

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Slaughter bots can reduce this dilemma, giving militias weapons to commit war crimes without involving human warfare. While civil wars are tragic on all sides, reducing casualties is not a complete solution, but it does help: for “ethnic cleansing, [drones] can easily be programmed to kill only people with a certain skin color or ethnicity. Although in Rwanda, because of intermarriage many Tutsis and Hutus were indistinguishable from each other, in other instances the technology might facilitate a reduction in casualties, in fact, the sheer terror of slaughter bots might bring enemy peoples to a truce. Massachusetts Institute of Technology AI professor Max Tegmark believes autonomous weapon systems, AWSs, are frighteningly revolutionary. The technology is much less expensive than housing and controlling captive soldiers, and it is more precise. The only cost is in obtaining and maintaining the machines who are “assassins” and cannot rebel or undermine their captors. In turn, less casualties, trauma, and post-war imprisonment will occur. After the war, militia leaders and bot commanders will be held accountable, and the need to prosecute forced soldiers will diminish, unlike with the Rwandan crimes in which over 100,000 genocide suspects were incarcerated.

Soon, AI drones, landmine robots and slaughter bots will be more preferred than human adult and child soldiers because of their precision and low-cost. AWSs are increasing in capability and in black market accessibility: “[AI] technology has reached a point where the deployment of such systems is practically if not legally feasible within years, not decades, and the stakes are high: autonomous weapons have been described as the third revolution in warfare, after gunpowder and nuclear arms,” says Professor Tegmark, noting that AWSs will be accessible, cheap, and precise, and will lack moral opinions. Danaher agrees: the “targeting systems of AWSs and their ability to adapt to dynamic battlefield conditions, in particular their ability to make fine-grained and context-sensitive distinctions between who is and who is not an enemy combatant,” can focus warfare to the implicit enemies without using land soldiers. Tegmark highlights Danaher, explaining that AI weapons can choose their enemy target without human command. “They might include, for example, armed quadcopters that can search for and eliminate people meeting certain pre-defined criteria,” meaning AWSs execute without a human pulling the trigger. Danaher elaborates on the incentivization, saying, “the advantage of AWSs…is that they could be more selective and less destructive than human actors.” AWSs prevent human involvement on both the attacking side and the enemy side because they are more concise. Also, AWSs cannot negate the commander: they are “incapable of acting for moral reasons.” This, too, is a somewhat win-win situation in that bots are more selective and less destructive, which, in execution and anti-insurrection, is good for militias, who would see a decline in the need for brainwashing, morale, and coercion, and for forced child and adult soldiers, a reduction in trafficking, innocent lives lost, and the aftereffects of emotional trauma.  

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Aside from these breakthroughs, human traffickers will soon see a disruption in the illicit human organs market: AI robotics will be able to create human organs, changing the organ trade from human trafficking to the, perhaps legal, sale and manufacture of lab-created organs. Although the technology is still emerging, scientists have successfully 3D bio-printed a human bladder with human-friendly plastic and cells from the transplant recipient. According to researchers, scientists have identified the technology needed to bio-print human organs and are refining the process. As ease of production reduces demand for stolen human organs, the trade may become obsolete altogether. According to the researchers, “[r]egenerative medicine options are becoming increasingly advanced and are taking advantage of progress in novel manufacturing techniques, including 3D bioprinting, to deliver potentially viable alternatives.” Ether demand will dissipate as patients receive organ transplants upon immediate need for a new organ, or traffickers will find it is much easier money to sell homemade ones.

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Although job displacement by AI is a silver lining on what experts like Shelley and Patterson write is the endless cloud of growing modern slavery in the world, sceptics may not see it possible. The strongest argument against the use of AI robotics in lieu of modern slavery and forced servitude is accessibility and use—how can human traffickers and owners afford advanced technology to replace the estimated 40 million men women and children who are currently serving them? Also, will they be able to operate the computers? Will they want to? Most human trafficking is done in underdeveloped, non-technological global regions such as in Asia Pacific and Africa—even if they could afford it, slave and servitude owners will not likely be interested in converting to peaceful advanced technology as, in Shelley’s words, they “rely on coercion, deception, corruption, and brute force at every stage of the business.” Domination over other humans is what they know, says slavery expert David Byron Davis—this “identity, ideology, and power” is often what lies at the core of the slave and servitude owner. Because “slavery has…existed throughout history,” the old way of doing things is tried and true—bringing in change will upset operations and not likely succeed.

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However, as the cost-benefit analysis of using AI robotics becomes more officially known, oppressors and traffickers will find a way to use the new technology. In cases when slave owners do not know how to handle technology, human traffickers may begin to employ or enslave computer operators instead of workers, drastically reducing the numbers in forced servitude and modern slavery in many fields of exploitation, while using technology to ensure consistent crime-based profits in less victim-based markets. With organ bioprinting, for example, the equipment is accessible: “Inkjet printers…are the most commonly used biological printer, due to their low cost, wide availability, and high print speed,” say experts. These printers are easy to come by.  There is great financial incentivization and accessibility for oppressors to begin the switch to robotic AI. Shelley explains that “human traffickers who exploit the vulnerable include a wide range of actors…from elite individuals to small entrepreneurial networks to the large crime groups that operate from Columbia, Mexico, and Africa.” Many of these criminals will have access to profitable technology, if not, they will forge access.

In addition, factory bots and sexbots could be subsidized by the government or other organizations, and the machines could be leased, reducing immediate overhead. In cases of military terrorism, AWSs are expected to become easily available and highly desirable for militias seeking to dominate a country. Autonomous weapons, says Tegmark, “require no costly or hard-to obtain raw materials, so they’ll become ubiquitous and cheap for all significant military powers to mass-produce.” These will pose a brilliant weapon for warlords—they will covet them over human soldiers because of the technology’s accuracy, cost, and ease of use. In addition, the labor of many slaves can be replaced by a single AI bot that does not require food, rest, or moral attention, nor will it fight back or take revenge. AI bots are many times more productive than humans; for example: a factory can be automated to work nonstop and to manage itself, multiplying its output. Likewise, sexbots do not require supervision, can take customers 24/7, and do not contract or spread sexually transmitted diseases. With AI robots, drug smugglers can use untraceable delivery drones to deliver drugs or move cash, eliminating the need to use “mules”—unsuspecting or coerced smugglers. Robots can sort and prepare drugs anonymously, automating crime and removing the need for humans who are forced to process illicit drugs. Likewise, automated drones can lead people illegally across a border, reducing the need for human smugglers, lowering the likelihood of migrants falling prey to debt bondage. With low costs like these, and high incentivization in production, legitimacy, and profits, the modern slave and forced labor market will quickly begin to demand AI technology, not only out of ambition, but also to keep up with their competition.

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Author Arthur C. Clarke once wrote: “Every sufficiently advanced technology seems like magic.” Although it is hard to believe that human-like technology is blooming, it is. Will AI robots replace modern slavery, prostitution, and forced military servitude across the world, slowly freeing 40 million human victims from the pain and suffering of capture? Not completely and not all at once, say the ILO and Walk Free Foundation: “Ending modern slavery will require a multi-faceted response that addresses the array of forces—economic, social, cultural, and legal—that contribute to vulnerability and enable abuses. There can be no one-size-fits-all solution, responses need to be adapted to the diverse environments in which modern slavery still occurs.”

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Human trafficking will remain for many reasons but mostly because it is profitable. However, machines that learn are already here and they will disrupt the illegal forced labor and modern slave industry.  Although humans may always exploit other humans for gain and dominance, the advent of modern technology shows promising relief from the need for trafficking. Recognizing that machines have the potential to liberate humanity while remaining free from emotional and physical trauma is a miracle of Science; it will not be ignored. The sheer business of economics will ensure that AI robots thrive in all areas of profit, whether humane or inhumane. Instead of the outcry of trafficked victims worldwide, demand and competition will clamor for change.  

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Rebecca Schembri is an International Relations and Social Justice undergraduate student at Harvard University Extension School. She is a Space Advocate and Author from Reno, Nevada, USA

Works Cited

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“Rwanda-Gacaca: A Question of Justice.” Amnesty International, December 2002.

Shelley, Louise. Human Trafficking: A Global Perspective, Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Tegmark, Max. Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, 2017.

Wragg, Nicholas, et al. “A critical review of current progress in 3D kidney biomanufacturing: advances, challenges, and recommendations.” Renal Replace Therapy, Vol 5, 18, 2019.