Welcome to The Future, one of our favorite playgrounds. We love dabbling about in it, as our numerous utopias and dystopias testify; like the Afterlife, it’s up for grabs, since no one has actually been there.
What fate is in store for us in The Future? Will it be a Yikes or a Hurrah? Zombie apocalypse? No more fish? Vertical urban farming? Burnout? Genetically modified humans? Will we, using our great-big-brain cleverness, manage to solve the many problems now confronting us on this planet? Or will that very same cleverness, coupled with greed and short-term thinking, prove to be our downfall? We have plenty of latitude for our speculations, since The Future is not predetermined.
Many of our proposed futures contain robots. The present also contains robots, but The Future is said to contain a lot more of them. Is that good or bad? We haven’t made up our minds. And while we’re at it, how about a robotic mind that can be made up more easily than a human one?
Sci-fi writers have been exploring robots for decades, but they were far from the first to do so. Humankind has been imagining nonbiological but sentient entities that do our bidding ever since we first set stylus to papyrus.
Why do we dream up such things? Because, deep down, we desire them. Our species never puts much effort into things that aren’t on our own wish list. If we were technologically capable mice, we’d be perfecting deadly cat harpoons, or bird-exploding rockets, or cheese-on-demand molecular assemblers that would enable Captain Kirk mice to squeak “Cheese, cheddar, sharp” to their spaceship walls and make cheese appear. But our desires lie elsewhere, though the cheese gizmo might be nice.
To understand Homo sapiens’ primary wish list, go back to mythology. We endowed the gods with the abilities we wished we had ourselves: immortality and eternal youth, flight, resplendent beauty, total power, climate control, ultimate weapons, delicious banquets minus the cooking and washing up — and artificial creatures at our beck and call.
In one of the oldest known texts, a Sumerian god makes two demons enter the world of Death to rescue a life-goddess, since, not being biologically alive, they themselves cannot die. Hephaestus, the lame smith-god in the Iliad and other stories, fashions not only metal tables that run around by themselves, but also a group of helpful golden maidens with artificial intelligence. In addition, Hephaestus created Talos, a bronze giant, to patrol and defend the island of Crete, thus giving us the first war-against-the-robots plot, which has been serviceable ever since.
As we moved closer to the modern age, we continued to amuse ourselves with tales of proto-robots: brass heads that could talk, man-created golems fashioned out of clay, puppets who came to life, and fake women — such as Olympia and Coppélia of opera and ballet fame. Meanwhile, we were working away at the real thing: Steam-powered automatons date to ancient times; Leonardo da Vinci designed an artificial knight; and the 18th century went overboard on windup animals, birds and manikins that could perform simple actions. The Digesting Duck, introduced in 1738, went further: It appeared to eat, digest and then poop. Sadly, the poop was pre-stored; still, the Digesting Duck demonstrated the extent to which we can be delighted by watching an inanimate object do something we’d shoo it off the lawn for doing if it were real.
Once the modern age was upon us, we got serious about robots. The word “robot” was introduced in Karel Capek’s 1920 play “R.U.R.” (Rossum’s Universal Robots), derived from a root meaning “slave” or “servitude.” In this, Capek was merely echoing Aristotle, who speculated long ago that people might be able to eliminate the miseries of slavery by creating devices that could move around by themselves, like Hephaestus’ metal tables, and do the heavy lifting for us. Capek’s robots, then, were devised as artificial slaves, thus doing away with the unfortunate need for real ones.
Or, as a story from the golden age of sci-fi comics so neatly put it: “Dogs used to be man’s best friend — now robots are! Civilization needs them for many important tasks!” (Judging from the cone-shaped breasts of the woman being lectured to in the comic, I’d date this to the early 1950s.) In another story, “The Perfect Servant,” Hugo the Robot — who looks a lot like the Tin Woodman from “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” a character whose influence on the world of robots has not been duly recognized — says, “I am proud to be a robot and proud to serve as fine a master as Professor Tompkins!” But Hugo also says, “I do not understand women.”
Uh-oh. Hugo knows how to make the windows gleam, arrange the flowers and set the table perfectly, but something’s missing. Who designed this guy? My guess is Professor Tompkins. Those darned mad scientists, missing a human chip or two themselves, always get something wrong.
And thereby hangs many a popular tale; for although we’ve pined for them and designed them, we’ve never felt down-to-earth regular-folks comfy with humanoid robots. There’s nothing that spooks us more, say those who study such things, than beings that appear to be human but aren’t quite. As long as they look like the Tin Woodman and have funnels on their heads, we can handle them; but if they look almost like us — if they look, for instance, like the “replicants” in the film “Blade Runner”; or like the plastic-faced, sexually compliant fake Stepford Wives; or like the enemy robot-folk in the “Terminator” series, human enough until their skins burn off — that’s another matter.
The worry seems to be that perfected robots, instead of being proud to serve their creators, will rebel, resisting their subservient status and eliminating or enslaving us. Like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice or the makers of golems, we can work wonders, but we fear that we can’t control the results. The robots in “R.U.R.” ultimately triumph, and this meme has been elaborated upon in story after story, both written and filmed, in the decades since.
A clever variant was supplied by John Wyndham in his 1954 story “Compassion Circuit,” in which empathetic robots, designed to react in a caring way to human suffering, cut off a sick woman’s head and attach it to a robot body. At the time Wyndham was writing, this plot line was viewed with some horror, but today we would probably say, “Awesome idea!” We’re already accustomed to the prospect of our future cyborgization, because — as Marshall McLuhan noted with respect to media — what we project changes us, what we farm also farms us, and thus what we roboticize may, in the future, roboticize us.
Maybe. Up to a point. If we let it.
Although I grew up in the golden age of sci-fi robots, I didn’t see my first functional piece of robotics until the early ’70s. It wasn’t a whole humanoid, but a robotic arm and hand used at the Chalk River Nuclear Research Laboratory in Ontario to manipulate radioactive materials behind a radiation-proof glass shield. Many of the same principles were employed in the Canadarm space-shuttle manipulator arm of the 1980s, and many more applications for robotic arms have since been identified, including remote surgery and — my own interest — remote writing. I helped develop the LongPen in 2004 to facilitate remote book signings, but, as is the way with golems, it escaped from the intentions of its creator and is now busily engaging with the worlds of banking, business, sports and music. Who’d have thought?
These are benign uses of robotics, and there are many more examples. Manufacturing now employs robots heavily, loving their advantages: They never get tired, or need pension plans, or go on strike. This trend is causing a certain amount of angst: What will happen to the consumer base if robots replace all the human workers? Who will buy all the stuff the robots can so endlessly and cheaply churn out? Even seemingly nonthreatening uses of robots can have their hidden downsides.
But, their promoters say, think of the potential for saving lives! Nanorobots could revolutionize noninvasive surgery. And robots can already be deployed in environments that are hazardous for humans, such as bomb detonation and undersea exploration. These things are surely good.
We do, however, always push the envelope; it’s part of our great-big-brain cleverness. Hephaestus devised some artificial helpers, but — running true to geek type — he couldn’t resist making them in the form of lovely golden maidens, a whole posse of magician’s girl sidekicks just for him. Pygmalion carved a girl out of ivory, then fell in love with her. We’re well on our way in that direction: “The Stepford Wives” shines like a beacon, and in the recent film “Her,” Joaquin Phoenix goes pie-eyed over the sympathetic though artificial voice of his phone’s operating system.
But it’s not all a one-way gender street. The writer Susan Swan has a story in which the female character creates a man robot called “Manny,” complete with cooking skills and compassion circuits, who’s everything a girl could wish for until her best friend steals him, using the robot’s own empathy module to do it. (She needs him more! How can he resist?)
Back in our increasingly fiction-like real life, we’re being promised pizza delivery by drones — a comedy special, featuring a lot of misplaced tomato sauce, is surely not far away. In the automotive department, self-driving cars are being talked up. Don’t hold your breath: It’s unlikely that drivers will relinquish their autonomy, and the possibilities for hacking are obvious. Even further out toward the edge, people are dreaming up robotic prostitutes, complete with sanitary self-flushing features. Will there be a voice feature, and, if so, what will it say?
If the prospect of getting painfully stuck due to a malfunction keeps you from test-driving a full-body prostibot, you may soon be able to avail yourself of a remote kissing device that transmits the sensation of your sweetie’s kiss to your lips via haptic feedback and an apparatus that resembles a Silly Putty egg. (Just close your eyes.) Or you could venture all the way into the emerging world of “teledildonics” — essentially, remote-controlled vibrators. Push the game-controller levers, watch the effect on screen. Germ-free! Wait for Google or Skype to snatch this up.
Will remote sex on demand change human relationships? Will it change human nature? What is human nature, anyway? That’s one of the questions our robots — both real and fictional — have always prompted us to think about.
Every technology we develop is an extension of one of our own senses or capabilities. It has always been that way. The spear and the arrow extended the arm, the telescope extended the eye, and now the Kissinger kissing device extends the mouth. Every technology we’ve ever made has also altered the way we live. So how different will our lives be if the future we choose is the one with all these robots in it?
More to the point, how will we power that future? Every modern robotic form that exists, and every one still to come, depends on a supply of cheap energy. If the energy disappears, so will the robots. And, to a large degree, so will we, since the lifestyle we have built and come to depend on floats on a sea of electricity. Hephaestus’ bronze giant was powered by the ichor of the divine gods; we can’t use that, but we need to think up another energy source that’s both widely available and won’t end up killing us.
If we can’t do that, the number of possible futures available to us will shrink dramatically to one. It won’t be the Hurrah; it will be the Yikes. This will perhaps be followed — as in a Ray Bradbury story — by a chorus of battery-powered robotic voices that continues long after our own voices have fallen silent.