Humanity's High Hopes for Our Robotic Offspring

No longer the fancy of science fiction, androids are here right now—draped in fleshlike rubber and programmed to ease our fears.

By Bruno Maddox|Tuesday, November 09, 2010
RELATED TAGS: ROBOTS

See the related gallery of photos from Hanson Robotics' android factory.

Why is nobody scared of robots anymore? It seems like only yesterday we could barely get the popcorn to our mouths, so atremble were our puny fingers at the sight, and the thought, of the Terminator. On the written page, Isaac Asimov was spending an outsize chunk of one of history’s more prolific careers wondering, and worrying, about the line between man and machine, both where and whether it could be drawn. The whole gosh-darn concept of “the uncanny,” supposedly under­pinning much of human fear, was described—at the term’s coining in 1906 by psychologist Ernst Jentsch—as “doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might be, in fact, animate.” Robo-fear, he might just as accurately have titled it, if people had talked like that back then and if the relevant Japanese hair-metal band had traveled back through time to grant its permission.

But our robo-fear, all of a sudden, has gone away. Robots in movies these days are too busy finding true love and overcoming adversity to use the barrel organ of machine guns in their chests. Bearded thinkers in the snowy North­east no longer pause for hours before animatronic window displays, conducting frantic inventories of their inner fauna for something that might pass for a spark of ineffable humanity. Even blue-collar types who once ranted and wept into their beer about the very real possibility of a robot stealing their assembly-line jobs have retargeted their panic onto the denizens of Bangalore and Guangzhou. It’s not that we’ve somehow become braver as a species. No, it’s only robots that we are no longer scared of. Which is mysterious when you think about it, given that all those old robo-nightmares are coming true before our eyes.

I suppose I shouldn’t overgeneralize. If you’re a jihadist hunkered on a Waziri crag—or if you’re planning to attend a wedding in the region—killer robots in the sky are a new and quite valid concern, and I bet you worry about them. Oh, and academics, including the ones that actually design and construct robots, are more worried about them than ever. “Scientists Fear a Revolt by Killer Robots” blared a headline in The Sunday Times of London, crystallizing the minutes of last year’s International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Pasadena.

But the rest of us, the people—we’re listening with a new equanimity to news reports of the EATR (Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot), which sustains itself indefinitely on the battlefield by the scavenging and consumption of “organic material,” particularly when Robert Finkelstein, the president of Robotic Technology, assures us the EATR is “mostly vegetarian.” We have robot vacuum cleaners living in our homes, right under our roofs, and never think to accuse them of sleeping with our wives. Most tellingly, we stare at the innovations of someone like robotics mastermind David Hanson, with his warm, witty, seemingly flesh-covered cyborgs, and no longer feel that 20th-century chill, that foreboding, that dizzying uncertainty as to whether what we are seeing belongs to us or to them, is a “you” or an “it.” (All the robots in the related gallery are products of Hanson’s robotics facility in Richardson, Texas—judge for yourself.)

Which I’m guessing is quite frustrating for him. Hanson has said that the shocking verisimilitude of his creations is in the service of allowing us to relate to them. The antidote to robo-fear, Hanson would have us believe he believes, is to make the robot smile and shrug and look wistful or perky or sympathetic. If his robots share a defining feature, it may be likability. From the peppy, guileless Zeno—a manga updating of the sort of wide-eyed boy-child Lassie used to rescue from mine shafts—to the twinkly, avuncular, presumably-not-named-Einstein-for-legal-reasons Albert-Hubo, Hanson’s robots lend weight to his claim that his first priority is to leave people feeling un-freaked out.

One wonders, though. If your goal is not freaking people out, do you refer to the substance coating your robots as “flesh rubber” and then abbreviate it to the even more sinister Frubber? If your goal is not freaking people out, do you circulate footage of your humanoid creations in laboratory surroundings, with a workbench bisecting their “living,” “breathing” torso as if they were victims of the Philadelphia Experiment? If your goal is not freaking people out, do you program your robots to intone, with quasi-medicated serenity, such creepily upbeat robo-sentiments as “I’m having a very pleasant day” or “While I’m primitive now, I am evolving!” If Freudian concepts are the discourse of choice, one wonders if the uncanny might be less germane to Hanson’s operation than is the concept of unconscious intention. For a man (and a robot family) on a stated mission not to creep people out, Hanson—an unashamed sci-fi fan—and his inorganic brood sure do look like they’re trying pretty hard to creep people out.

But it isn’t working. We aren’t creeped out. Churchmen aren’t busily denouncing Hanson’s God-playing from the pulpit or on Larry King Live. Villagers aren’t picketing his gate. The question is, why not? What became of our fear?

You could argue, I suppose—because it’s true—that the great technological leaps forward of the last few decades, and the huge dividends for us in terms of power and convenience, have washed away our techno­fear and left us with a taste, even an impatience, for all and any change and progress, the more disorienting and “futuristic” the better. The robot-caused changes to our society will clearly be huge and are unimaginable...but so were those wrought by the Internet, and that worked out pretty well. When it comes to facing massive technological paradigm shifts that render our society unrecognizable, it may be that the Internet has left us in a daring and expansive mood, like explorers at a remote tribal banquet, giddy with relief at having quite enjoyed the first terrifying course of baked grubs. Surprise us, we’re in a mood to say to the techno-fates. Do your worst. Though the second course could, of course, be something’s rectum with the spine still attached. The second course could, of course, be us.

Still, I think there’s more to it than that. Or less, to be specific. I’d argue that the revolution of the last 20 years has quenched our robo-fear, not so much by giving us a taste for change as by taking the gleam off that spark of humanity we used to be so proud of. What is Man? people used to wonder. Is consciousness divine in origin? Or is it a mere accident of nature that we alone, of all the matter in this Great Universe, adrift upon this marbled speck, have the power to dignify and ennoble our condition by understanding it, or at least attempting to?

Then along came the Internet, and now we know what Man is. He enjoys porn and photographs of cats on top of things. He spells definitely with an a, for the most part, and the possessive its with an apostrophe. On questions of great import or questions of scant import, he chooses sides based on what, and whom, choosing that particular side makes him feel like, and he argues passionately for his cause, all the more so after facts emerge to prove him a fool, a liar, and a hypocrite. If a joke or a turn of phrase amuses him, he repeats it, as if he thought of it, to others who then do the same. If something scares him, he acts bored and sarcastic.

That’s pretty much it for Man, it turns out after all the fuss. And so our robo-fear has become a robo-hope. Our dreams for ourselves are pretty much over, having been ended by the recent and vivid reiteration of the news that we really are just grubby and excitable apes, incapable by our nature of even agreeing on a set of facts, let alone working together to try and change them. And yet those dreams of who we might have been live on, like the dreams of elderly paupers, in the shape of our children: better nourished and educated than we ever were; raised to be less selfish, more noble, more classy in every way, Yankees to our Mets. It’s already clear that we’re not building robots in our own image. We’re building them in the image of the people we wish we were, and therein lies the hope: that in time the virtues we’ve programmed into our robots will embarrass us into copying them. Why should we waste our time jealously guarding our humanity, my fleshy, odorous, dim-bulb friends? When this is the chance we’ve been waiting for to finally become less human?

See the related gallery of photos from Hanson Robotics' Richardson android factory.

photography by Timothy Archibald
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