Why We Should Pay Attention to Sci-Fi Stories about Robots

by on July 26th, 2011

robotMy first crush was on a robot: Expo Ernie in 1986. He had a sort of astronaut appeal. I don’t remember much about Expo ’86 (I was five) but I will always remember Ernie. Robots have always had a romantic appeal for us, perhaps because of our desire to create, and more specifically to create life. Creating life on its own is exciting, but creating a bond and communication with this new life is one of humanity’s greatest desires, whether we admit it or not. There is an intense romanticism about robots and machines that’s pervaded human culture and stories for many decades. Perhaps this is why we are creating and inventing new technology and robotics at startling speed. We want to see what we can do and we want robots to be an intricate part of our life, socially as well as technologically. With this in mind, I have been thinking about what this technology could lead to if it continues to develop at such speed. This isn’t a scare tactic, it’s just common sense.

Now, it could be my sci-fi infused brain, full of Battlestar Galactica, Terminator, Dollhouse and other futuristic scenarios but I am beginning to think we ought to be paying more attention to what our sci-fi stories tell us about the potential for us humans to accidentally destroy ourselves with our own technology, or be destroyed by our technological creations. Clearly, history has proven our ability to accidentally cause mass destruction through our creations (who ever thought atomic bombs and nukes would be a good idea in any scenario?). It would be wise to consider the lessons in stories rather than just deeming them theoretical fiction and nothing more.

Many believe we’re more likely to be hit by a meteor than to cause an apocalypse by our own technology, or accidental stupidity. Computer technology helps us, right? Indeed it continues to make our lives easier, but the knock-on effects are only just starting to show and how it will continue to develop and affect our development is still as yet unknown. Robotic technology is also leading to greater issues of privacy and information storage, which is troubling.

Privacy issues are becoming greater while our awareness seems to be lessening. We are happier and happier to give away our details and become part of an ever growing log of information on humanity. In most hands this information is relatively harmless.  However, there seems to be an ever greater abundance of interesting new technology and robotics which are: storing our information, learning how to think and act on their own, and looking and acting more and more like us. What’s disturbing here is that the smarter our computers get it seems the lazier we become. We’re dependent on our machines, probably too dependent.
So here are a few reasons we should pay attention to sci-fi stories and maybe think twice about mindlessly ploughing ahead with certain technologies:

1)Google & Facebook Know You Intimately

Most of us know that Google keeps track of what we type and search for and gives ads and offers according to catalogued interests. Facebook has our photos, friends list, and search patterns logged too. It recognises the words we type and customises advertisements accordingly. In some ways the mega-search engines and social networks like Google and Facebook are similar to things we’ve seen in films like Minority Report. In the film, eyes are scanned and advertisements show accordingly – this really isn’t so far off from that. I consider that an invasion of privacy, yet we’re letting already letting it happen. These programs that scout out our information to better target marketing tactics are called robots. Robots are also used in Google’s search algorithms. It’s how search rankings are discovered and sorted. The robots “crawl” through sites (a little bit like spiders) gathering up our information and storing it for later use. Tell me that isn’t at least slightly creepy.

2)The Wearable Sensecam Tracks Your Life, Habits, and Hobbies

Think of all the information about you that is stored on your computer and online. Now think about all of your memories, habits, and daily activities being stored for all time… on a computer that remembers and assesses the data. Sounds great, right? Microsoft’s Sensecam is an incredible tool especially for those who struggle with memory loss or cognitive problems. Generally worn around your neck, this camera can record every aspect of your life in photos. When it has enough information it can even make predictions about you. It learns about you. Exciting, right? At the moment, yes; but if everyone worldwide used one of these, computers would have access to our memories as well as our habits. Any spy will tell you if you know someone’s routine, it’s easier to kill ‘em…

3)The Vacuum with Personality

Proving the theory that we want our technology to socialise with us as much as aid our daily tasks, through various amusing tests with actors (who pretended to be vacuums), Scientists have recently figured out how to give personality to robotic vacuums based on survey results from robotic vacuum owners. Customers said they would like the robot to have characteristics such as “calm,” “talkative,” “likes routines,” “bold,” and “systematic.” While I can understand wanting to anthropomorphise a robotic vacuum (I anthropomorphise many things just for fun), do we really need our vacuums to engage us in conversation? What if they find us boring? What if eventually they refuse to do their job? Hey, it could happen.

4)Nanotechnology is Everywhere

In some ways nanotech is extraordinarily exciting. The idea of tinier-than-the-eye-can-see robots crawling around on clothing and work surfaces (and even inside our bodies) is quite fascinating. These tiny robots do, and will do, a lot of good: preventing stains on fancy work shirts, removing bacteria and spills from surfaces, repairing bones and keeping us healthy. But what concerns me is that (according to nanogloss.com) “nanotechnology controls matter on an atomic level, modifying its effects to achieve desired results.” It controls matter. This is extremely cool when it’s working well but what if they malfunction? Do we really need miniscule robots messing around with matter without us even seeing it?

5)Robots that Learn, React, and Engage like Humans

Robotics technology is advancing at surprising speed. Years ago it didn’t seem remotely possible that we’d ever master the art of robots that learn, adapt, and speak. Now we are getting close to developing helper robots with distinct personalities, who can move, learn, and adapt to situations and surroundings, on their own. The aim is for them to be able to grow and develop, almost just like people. While part of me thinks this is extraordinarily exciting, another part of me remembers how disturbed I was when I once visited a wax museum. Pseudo human life is a bit unnerving, not least because if it’s done well enough, it could trick us. There is potential for robots such as these to develop into weapons. What’s to stop the army from creating legions of robotic soldiers? Potential malfunctions are probably discussed in development but we rarely consider all possible scenarios when creating new technologies, especially weapons (case in point? The atom bomb).

Now here’s the tricky bit. This type of article can come across as silly, over-reacting, conspiracy theorist and just plain nuts. But that’s not my intention. Instead, I would simply like to see humanity think a little more, especially before attempting to create new life without knowing the potential consequences and effects of the new creation itself. Not least of which because life always evolves and I believe this applies, or will apply, to synthetic life as much as natural life. We can guess but never fully know what synthetic life can become as it grows and develops.

We believe we have control of our world but our understanding can only ever be limited. Sci-fi and other theoretical fiction tells us that we’re headed into dangerous territory with our robotic and technological advancements. I think we ought to pay attention to what our stories tell us. However, science fiction is just that: fiction. It may be that all stays well forever. Our technological robotic creations may happily serve us for all time. But they also might not.

All I can say is I’m going to be nice to the robots. You know, just in case.

Author: K Newey enjoys writing about media, technology and culture. She also likes contemplating the future. If you ever have a robot related accident, don’t forget to submit your claim and get the help you deserve.