Friday, October 17, 2008

We, Robot—Part 1: Our Past, Our Present, Our Future

Mechanical “beings” have been with us since ancient times. The myths of Greece, China, the Middle East and Norse mythology have all explored the use of machines—robots—that could lessen our work. In ancient literature, the Greek god Hephaestus created mechanical servants; Jewish legend described clay golems and Norse mythology described clay giants. There was also Galatea, the mythical statue of Pygmalion that came to life. In 1495, Leonardo da Vinci sketched plans for a humanoid robot that could sit up, wave its arms and move its head and jaw.

The word robot was introduced to the public in 1921 by Czech writer Karel Čapek in his play Rossum’s Universal Robots. The word comes from robota which means “drudgery” or “hard work”.

Six years later Fritz Lang made the now classic dystopia Metropolis, in which he masterfully portrays a world dominated by technology and heartless greed; where the bulk of the people are dehumanized workers who more resemble machines in their jerky rhythmic movements and laconic faces than the oppressed humans they are. Lang’s Metropolis is a world whose “heart” (the intermediary) is missing between its “brain” (those who conceive and run the city) and its “hands” (those who labor to make it a reality). Lang’s compelling opening scenes reveal workers puppeting their duties as if choreographed by some giant machine-intelligence. Who are the robots?

The Oxford Dictionary defines a robot as: “apparently human automation, intelligent and obedient but impersonal machine; machine-like person”.

Stories of artificial helpers and companions and attempts to create them have been with us a long time, but fully autonomous machines have only appeared in the 20th Century. The first digitally operated and programmable robot was created in 1961 by George Devol. Called Unimate, the robot lifted hot pieces of metal from a die casting machine and stacked them.

Today, our world is populated with robots. Two million personal robots were in use worldwide in 2004, and seven million more will be installed by 2008, according to Scientific American (May 2008). Robots are widely used in manufacturing and assembly like car production, packaging, electronics, medical surgery, transportation, surveillance, space exploration, weaponry, laboratory research, and automated guided vehicles, just to name a few.

Robots are starting to enter our lives in much more personal ways than ever before. Robo-vacuums like Roomba are easing housework; digital pets like Tamagotchis and the e-dog Aibo serve as electronic companions. In Scientific American Robots (May 2008) Bill Gates describes how “A Robot in Every Home” will greatly transform domestic life. He reminds us that “some of the world’s best minds are trying to solve the toughest problems of robotics, such as visual recognition, navigation and machine learning.” We can expect robots in the future to execute 100 trillion instructions a second and eventually surpass human intelligence (at least certain kinds of intelligence). As robots acquire more human attributes, people are also adopting electronic implants to improve their own performance. Who are the robots?

While people have demonstrated a positive perception of robots, our literature and film has generally portrayed them as problematic, even “evil” (e.g., The Terminator, Robocop, Cylons in BattleStar Galactica, The Matrix, and I, Robot.) Fictional robots subvert humanity in various ways from being badly programmed to developing their own ability to upgrade their software and hardware.

Understanding the problem of the very real possibility of a robot advancing beyond its creator, author Isaac Asimov constructed Three Laws of Robotics in his 1942 story “Runaround”, and later appeared in his 1954 collection of short stories (I, Robot) which explored the relationship of robots at various stages of “sentience” with their society. Here they are: 1) a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; 2) a robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; and 3) a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. The book jacket of I, Robot read, “humans and robots struggle to survive together—and sometimes against each other…and both are asking the same questions: what is human? And is humanity obsolete?”

Which brings me back full circle to Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic, and its stunning imagery. Images of hands:
  • Of the angry workers reaching out to tear down the Centre of the Machine-World
  • Of the lecherous men reaching out to the evil “Maria” robot (Futura)
  • Of the young children of the underground city reaching skywards toward Maria and Freder in salvation
  • Of the one-gloved hand of “mad scientist” Rotwang, who creates Futura, an evil twin to Maria, who ironically incites the mob to destroy the machine-world.
This is the concept of a creator who creates what will eventually destroy him…or succeed him. This is a familiar concept to ecologists: succession—when a community of organisms creates an environment that becomes better suited to another community (e.g., moss that colonizes and breaks down rock into soil, is eventually succeeded by a higher plant community that requires soil to flourish).

What am I saying?...Well, I think we are in for some exciting times. And whether we choose to live in fear or in hope will likely determine the direction both we and the rest of our interactive communities, both machine and natural, take together. We are, after all, on a journey together.

Near the end of the film version of I, Robot, Sonny, having fulfilled his initial purpose of stopping the “evil” machine, asks Spooner, the human protagonist, “Now that I have fulfilled my purpose I don’t know what to do.” To which Spooner says, “I guess you’ll have to find your own way like the rest of us, Sonny…That’s what it means to be free…” and human?...

By the way…Did you know that according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest recorded use of the word robotics appears in Isaac Asimov’s short story, “Liar” (1941), which mentions the First Law of Robotics (see my review of I, Robot for more details).

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Jean-Luc Picard said...

The movie 'Metropolis' is so influential. I have this on DVD. It was expensive then, and still hasn't been beaten for it's impact.

SF Girl said...

I just watched it again last night and, yes, the impact was the same. This is a timeless classic. Fritz Lang had an incredible vision. He did a stunning job of portraying the futuristic technology and machine-like existence of the workers life. The symbolism and imagery gave the story amazing impact. This is powerful considering the film is over 75 years old!

tmy said...

Didn't Queen do the music for Metropolis? That was one of the best rock operas Freddy Mercury wrote.

SF Girl said...

WOW! Don't I wish! Not in the original version, tmy. When I just recently watched it again, I remarked to my son how another score would have changed the "tone" of the film. On the other hand, it is a classic and it's wonderful to see it in its complete original untampered state. Though I understand that it WAS changed for the North American market...

Is there a later version of Metropolis with music by Queen that I'm not aware of, tmy?

SF Girl said...

p.s. I just checked my reliable reference (google) and found it, a 1990 re-release with music by Queen and one of my favorite scoring musicians, Giorgio Morodor, among others. Cool! I will have to get it now. Thanks, tmy!

tmy said...

I was incorrect though, it's wasn't all Freddy at all. But when I saw the film when it came out, that song of his, 'Love Kills', really dominated it for me.

It was a great movie! Unfortunately, it doesn't appear to have been released in DVD.

SF Girl said...

Yeah... I noticed that. Shame. I'd have bought it, I think, too!

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Did you know that the film was Hitler's favourite?

SF Girl said...

That's amazing, Jean-luc! I wonder who he identified with... LOL!

Princess Haiku said...

Hi Nina,
I think it's okay if robots don't have common sense as most people don't either.

SF Girl said...

HAR! LOL! That's good, Princess! I so agree! One without common sense is so much better suited to us, isn't it? :)