03 January 2007

Our New Robot Overlords

I don't know if you read Scientific American -- I normally don't -- but the most recent issue caught my eye the other day. Its cover story is a column by Bill Gates, who predicts the rapid growth of robotic technologies in the near future:
I believe that technologies such as distributed computing, voice and visual recognition, and wireless broadband connectivity will open the door to a new generation of autonomous devices that enable computers to perform tasks in the physical world on our behalf. We may be on the verge of a new era, when the PC will get up off the desktop and allow us to see, hear, touch and manipulate objects in places where we are not physically present.

I'm teaching a class in robot SF this spring, and the texts I am teaching all look forward in some way to the world that Gates is trying to usher in here. From the very first robot story to the most recent ones, that idea of machines working for us in the physical world is the primary driving idea. Because I've got some time to kill, here are some summaries of a few of the things we're reading in the class.

Karel Čapek's R.U.R., the play in which "robot" is first used, envisions robots as tools to help humanity overcome its dependence on inequitable economic systems to survive. The problem, of course, is that the robots develop a consciousness of sorts and grow to resent their roles as the dutiful slaves of humanity. Interestingly, Čapek's robots are biological, rather than mechanical, entities. They are streamlined in their design, and they are initially without souls, but they develop them over time. Ultimately, the robots rise up and destroy alll humans except one, who they impress into developing a way for robots to reproduce. The ending is sort of mystical and pretty stupid: two robots fall in love and become the new Adam and Eve whose task is to repopulate the earth (nice work if you can get it, I guess).

Jack Williamson's Humanoids is terrifying. In it, the robots are self-reproducing and are connected via an alternate physics to a central brain on a remote planet someplace. They all obey a Prime Directive that commands them to protect humans from harm. The problem, of course, is that "harm" is defined very strictly. On each new planet that the humanoids reach, they abolish drinking, smoking, taking showers alone, and other potentially dangerous activities. Essentially, they rob humans of free will. It's a pretty good story; it focuses on the efforts of humans to use psychic abilities to fight the robots, who are virtually immune to all other forms of attack.

Isaac Asimov's three laws of robotics allow humans more free play than Williamson's Prime Directive. The first law still dictates that a robot must not harm a human or, through inaction, allow a human to come to harm, but the second law is that a robot must obey a human unless doing so violates the first law. The third law is that a robot must protect itself unless doing so violates the first two laws. Of course, we find in Asimov's collection of robot stories, I Robot, that the three laws are not always quite so clear-cut as they appear at first...

Phillip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? again shows us worker robots who are more or less sentient and who rebel against humanity, but his story is more hard-edged and complex than Capek's moralistic tale. Dick has a way of making you really, really confused at times, and this novel is no exception. The book went on to become the basis of Blade Runner, but in making the film, Ridley Scott was probably influenced just as much by the cyberpunk subgenre of SF as he was by Dick's novel, so the movie's concerns are much different.

Speaking of cyberpunk, Neuromancer by William Gibson is a very interesting novel that does some amazing things with exploring the grafting of technology onto and into humans. Artificial intelligences also play a large role in this novel, and it seems to be one important source for the rash of AI stories that have flooded the SF market since Neuromancer was written.

The concept of "free" labor by machines is a fascinating one, especially when you start to play with the idea of how to prevent these machines from becoming violent or rebellious... one wonders how programmers of Gates's much-vaunted robots will deal with these questions.

(P.S.: p4k ch0013 unf)

No comments: