What Robots Say About Us

Robot stories have been around for a long time. We can trace them back through Roger Bacon and Pope Silvester to the automata of the Ancients, and by another line of descent through David Gans of Prague and his golems. All of them, on the face of it, share the idiotic idea that a few cogs and levers and whatnot can outperform biological bodies. The later the science fiction hand-waving, the more pathetic it is, because we are learning so much each year about the fabulous complexity of evolved systems, all the things they can do that human engineers cannot dream of matching; and yet we have always known that if you damage a metal artefact it stays damaged, whereas a living creature will repair itself.

But all of this is beside the point; the deeper meaning of the robot or golem or cyborg is nothing to do with practical possibility, but is about our yearnings and anxieties. In the first place, the desire to have slaves whom we can with a good conscience treat as non-humans, and who will not resent this and so murder us in our beds; our desire to combine absolute power to serve us with absolute willingness to do so; and at the same time our fear that this cannot be, and should not be, because it says too much about who we are.

The word “robot” may have been invented by Karel Capek in a satire of industrial society, but it was the Americans who took the concept and ran with it, to an entirely different destination. In the pulp magazines of mid-century, the robot appears mostly as the domestic servant of the white middle-class family, whose primary concern is whether it is programmed so as to be incapable of harming its masters. By contrast, the science fiction of other countries, even class-obsessed Britain, shows very little interest in the domestic-robot story. When a white American householder is afraid that the robot will rape or seduce his wife – don’t laugh – or a husband finds that his bride has “Made in U.S.A.” stamped in her navel and so wants an annulment, it should be obvious what kind of nerves are being strummed here. Yes, Asimov’s Three Laws are just what Massa ordered; and thanks to the marvels of modern technology you won’t even need to own a plantation.

In the second place, the robot expresses our desire to be without feelings, to be invulnerable, never to be hurt again. Not for nothing do we call our boy-children Kephas, Petros, Stein or Rock. In the third place, the hope that transcending the flesh in the literal sense will mean transcending it in the “spiritual” sense too, so that we may leave behind such aspects of our humanity as distress our consciences. Whether machine intelligence will be as ruthlessly selfish and aggressive as all biological life remains to be ascertained, as does the gentility or nastiness of minds downloaded forever into a virtual reality.

Posted on August 12, 2009 at 21:16 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink

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