Space Ramblings

Our Robots Ourselves

The word “robot” is derived from Czech playwright Karel Capek’s play, “R.U.R.” “R.U.R.” stood for Rossum’s Universal Robots. Robot means simply that which works. Like most of the stories about robots that would come after it, Rossum’s Universal Robots eventually rise up and destroy their human masters.

The science fiction writer Isaac Asimov was considered the master of the robot story, crafting numerous stories and a number of novels about robots, including the famous collection “I. Robot” and the “Caves of Steel” book series. In time Asimov brought all his universes together into a single metaverse in which it is revealed that R. Daneel Olivaw (Robot DaneelOlivaw) is behind Hari Seldon and the creation of “The Foundation” and even its eventual replacement by Gaia.

Robots were quite pivotal therefore to Asimov’s work.But they were not the robots of Capek, who inevitably rise up against their masters. Asimov is credited with the developing the “Three Laws of Robotics” which specifically render robots harmless to humans. The bulk of Asimov’s stories regarding the laws explored logically how within those laws, robots took on seemingly eccentric decisions and balance the First Law (not permitting any human to come to harm) with the Second Law (obey orders given by humans) and the Third Law (protect your own existence when this is not in conflict with the First or Second Law.) The closest Asimov’s robots come to a general uprising is when a Dr. Susan Calvin examines a robotic Moses figures who prophesies the liberation of his people, only to turn him off.

So what was to happen when Hollywood finally got around to making “I. Robot” into a film? It certainly did not use Harlan Ellison’s extremely overrated screenplay which was hyped continually, but in practice was not at all cinematic and might have worked as a Gulliver style miniseries, but never as a film. But instead Hollywood produced I. Robot as an action movie starring Will Smith fighting an army of killer robots.

It’s tempting to blame Hollywood tastelessness and love of regurgitating the same cinematic cliches endlessly, however the Robot novels licensed by Asimov’s state and bearing his name on it, almost invariably seem to involve robots committing murders. These novels carry Asimov’s name on them and are supposedly meant to follow in his footsteps. Instead they promptly resort to the same Frankenstein cliche, the technological invention gone mad.

What exactly creates this gap? What it really comes down to is a view of technology and science. Are they positive forces in our society or destructive ones? Capek’s play viewed robots as simply the latest form of an underclass we exploit, which then inevitably rises up against us. But Capek’s robots were not mechanical but biological. Golems and Frankensteins, more than the products of steel and silicon. Since then portrayals of robots become metaphors for our view of technology.

If Hollywood routinely portrays robots as destructive, this is part and parcel of an old cinematic ethos which views technological inventions as extremely dangerous. On the other side of the divide were writers like Asimov who viewed technology and science as beneficial to society and humanity.

Rocket Ships Vs Atom Bombs

Both the rocket ship and the atom bomb represent metaphors for how we see science and technology, as a force that lifts us upward and allows us to transcend our natural boundaries, or a destructive power we are not ready for and will inevitably use to destroy ourselves.

The gap between the atom bomb and the rocket ship is not so great. Atomic weapons depend on long range ballistic missiles to reach their target. Rocket ships are tubes packed with explosive fuel and sometimes radioactive elements. Both are tools. The real distinction is in what purpose we put them to.

In Asimov’s works the robots we created, ultimately took charge of our lives, in a benevolent way and saved us all. In popular films, robots rise up to annihilate us. The Terminator movies take place in a world where the atom bomb = robot metaphor is literally true, as the machines have touched off nuclear war to annihilate the human race. The name Terminator has only meaning. Destroyer. In the logic of those movies the creation of machine intelligence leads it to inevitably be turned against mankind. Once technology is unleashed, it terminates, it destroys.

Yet even there, the T-1000 from the first Terminator film, becomes the hero of the next two sequels, after it is reprogrammed to fight for humanity instead. In “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”, John Connor, the future leader of the human resistance against Skynet and machine rule, teaches the T-1000 why it is wrong to kill. In doing so the values of the destructive machine are subsumed by human values. Paradoxically the T-1000 pursues a quest to destroy Skynet and parts of himself, in order to prevent himself from coming into being in the first place and at the end he actually destroys himself to prevent the Terminators from arising. Like the conclusion of Capek’s “R.U.R.” human qualities have entered the machine.

Movies and television shows that have an innately positive view of technology are rare and chief among them is the Star Trek franchise. Data on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” is an open tribute to Asimov, a friendly companion of humanity, logical and self-sacrificing and possessed of a positronic brain. However where Asimov’s robots, even when they were in effect ruling humanity, remained governed by the Three Laws and determined to serve mankind, Data sought to actually become human. Though philosophically Star Trek is the diametrical opposite of the Terminator universe, Data like the T-1000 is ennobled when human qualities are added to his mechanical ones.

Asimov appreciated robots for what they were, mechanical, intelligent servants. He did not seek to make them human. Their nature was fixedly robotic, though they might show compassion and humor, ultimately they would never be human. However most fiction divides robots into “Bad Robots” which are mechanical and “Good Robots” which are more humanlike in their personality.

Eternal Service

Servant is yet another variant of robot but we are naturally uncomfortable with servants. We live in a highly technological society, one in which our entertainment and leisure time is made possible by numerous appliances. Yet at the same time we fear those appliances. The senseless Y2K panic was the fear of a machine uprising, a breakdown that would lead nuclear missiles to fire, our bank accounts to erase themselves and our toasters to turn on us.

The third Terminator movie, “Terminator: Rise of the Machines” has a scene that explicitly links our reliance on gadgetry to our enslavement by them. After all once we need something, it comes to control us. A decade before we never had an MP3 player. Now we don’t go anywhere without one. We began using DOS, now we complain when Windows Vista doesn’t offer us every feature we want. We have grown used to more and more sophisticated features from our technological possessions. The more they do, the more we need them. The more we grow used to them, the more we are also threatened by them.

Capek’s original play was more about class and race than technology, but much of the fear of technology is a substitute for concerns about class and race. It was the industrial revolution that ultimately broke the back of slavery and ensured an equal place at the table for all. The greater our technological output, the more we have become able to provide for all the members of our society. With the rise of technology, the importance of race and class has diminished.

Capek’s play was essentially right, with technology having opened a magic box filled with seemingly endless bounty. Medicines, advanced surgical procedures, flights to the moon, robotic factories, nanotechnology, WiFi, internet, mental control over robotic limbs. Science and technology are essentially “Robbie the Robot” from “Forbidden Planet.” A robot capable of manufacturing and producing anything.

Robots are the personification of technology. Science and technology are impersonal. Pouring them into a metal skin, giving them a face, a voice, a personality.. allows us to roleplay our interactions with technology through the robots. Is technology our friend like Data? Our enemy like the Terminator? Or something in between. Do we learn from it or fight against it?

The question is not so much the nature of technology, for the difference between an atom bomb and a rocketship is not so much in their nature, as the uses we put them to. The question comes down to us. The robot is the eternal laborer and technology is prepared to labor for us, to any use we put it to, whether destruction or construction, annihilation or progress.

Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics” created boundaries for ourselves in how we should use technology. The Terminator, along with much of the trend of modern cultural thinking, advocates we should just blow it all up. Robots are our rosarch test, how we see them is how we see ourselves. Are we responsible? Are we capable of handling dangerous materials? Inside our hearts and souls, are we Datas, eager to learn and help or Terminators, seeking only to kill and destroy?

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