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.
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).