Asimov, robots, humans, gods

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Isaac Asimov loved the future. As a professor of biochemistry and prolific science fiction writer, he wrote or edited more than 500 books, along with a vast archive of correspondence. He is considered, along with Robert A Heinlein and Arthur C Clarke, one of the greatest names in sci-fi. Asimov’s embrace of the future and all its endless possibilities is still heartening two decades after his death – he once wrote ‘I do not fear computers. I fear the lack of them’. It’s a sentiment we can all relate to, given how we freak out if we leave our phone at home by mistake and have to spend a working day without Candy Crush or Facebook, or if our WiFi isn’t allowing us to download every film nominated for an Oscar this year in less than five minutes.

One of Asimov’s most notable contributions to sci-fi are his laws of robotics, conceived as part of his idea of positronic robots – benevolent machines that would ultimately help us make a better world. The laws 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 the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. 3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Watching the latest video from robotics experts Boston Dynamics, you can only hope that they have those laws written in huge letters on the wall of their lab. The US company are known for releasing videos showing their latest developments in mechanical evolution – first they made an ungainly tetrapod that could run, albeit in an awkward fashion. Then they showed it going up and down stairs, which as any Whovian would tell you was the only way to avoid history’s most terrifying robots, the Daleks.

But last week’s video from the firm was their most unsettling yet. It showed one of their robots politely opening a door and letting another robot through it. This proved all our worst fears – the robots have developed manners. This is how they will get us, through simple acts of kindness. One by one your co-workers will be replaced by biomechanoid drones, and you won’t even complain as one of them made you a cup of coffee, fixed the printer for you, or bought you a pint on a work night out. ‘01001001001? Sher he’s grand, he covered for me the day I went home early with a hangover, sound lad, apart from his dead soulless eyes’.

Next thing you know the robots are showing up at county board meetings talking about how the grassroots club-bots are the binary code of the GAA, or at community litter picks where they win everyone over by virtue of having hoovers for arms. Then they will be running for a council job, promising to fix the roads by offering us all flying autonomous cars that will gets us home safe and sound after enjoying a skinful of their new alcoholic beverage Soylent Green, which tastes slightly familiar, mainly because it was made from members of your family.

I say we reject these polite robots and the terrible future they offer – let’s stick to malfunctioning printers and fax machines, or the most reassuringly awful technology in existence, self service checkouts; yes there is a bag in the checkout area you bleeping moron, I just told you it’s there, dear god where is a human when you need one?

The humans, it would appear, are still very much here. The comfort in the Boston Dynamics videos is that these robots are not completely autonomous – there is still a human within the operations somewhere.

It is in Artificial Intelligence that our quasi-luddite fears become genuine concerns. It’s not that robots will start wiping us out, a la Terminator – although some might argue that drone strikes already do that for us – but that a robot could do our job for us. The advice from the experts would appear to be – find a job that needs you to be human. Great advice for any heavy hitting earners: accountants – algorithms made flesh, medics – Dr Google, anyone?, and solicitors – settle everything with a drone strike!

In fact, it’s hard to think of a job that couldn’t be taken by a decent, polite robot. Who hasn’t sat in the back of a taxi wishing it was a Johnny Cab from Total Recall with a mute button to shut off the banter? Or dreamed of a robot stylist as your barber chats about the footie when all you wanted was to stare at your own reflection, contemplating your decaying cells as he trims your ear hair? Who hasn’t read this column and wondered if I wasn’t really written by a malfunctioning Furby, randomly rolling around on the keyboard? The robots are coming, not for us, but our jobs.

I look forward to a day when human resources departments are exactly that – a screening process to stop these chrome interlopers from taking our jobs. A trip to HR would be a lot more fun if they were all tooled-up Blade Runners, ditching their psychometric testing in favour of a Voight-Kampff machine, ready to weed out any ‘bots who got past their interviews and blast them in the head. First up they should test Barry from accounts, I’m fairly sure he is a robot as there’s something off about him, not least in the fact that he is always humming.

Asimov’s understanding of technology wasn’t what made him such a great writer, but in his understanding, like all great sci-fi writers, of what makes us human. God created us in his image, and our biggest fear is that we might do the same with robots – that they could be imperfect, damaged creations like us. If we adhered to his laws of robotics, the world might even be a better place. As Asimov said, the saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.


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