Robots: 500 Years in the Making

robots, 500 years in the marking

Charlie has been with Team Clik four years. She’s the voice on the end of the phone and runs our office like a well-oiled machine. Charlie is an illustrator, attends a weekly Dungeons & Dragons night, loves Star Wars and recently went to a talk at the University of Bristol called The Rise Of The Robots.

Robots? Everyone loves a robot, right? That is until they take your job. Will they be taking our jobs? Charlie went along and found out…

Does Not Compute

As a self-confessed luddite, it seems somewhat preposterous that I am about to tell you, dear reader, a few things about robots. Because of peer pressure, I ended up going along to a Winter Lecture, ominously entitled: The rise of the robots. I wasn’t entirely opposed to this little housemates’ outing, it sounded like it might be interesting, plus it was free. Partly I thought it would be a nice appetiser to the release of Bladerunner 2049, but mainly I wanted a concrete assurance that the events of Judgement Day have in fact not already been set in motion.

First, a little context. The word ‘robot’ derives from the Czech word robota, coined by Karel Čapek in his 1920 play Rossum’s Universal Robots. Robota translates to ‘forced labour’, or ‘slave’. The play begins in a factory where real human beings (with flesh and blood and stuff) are made and set specific tasks by their human overlords. Long story short (and spoiler warning), they revolt, which ultimately leads to the extinction of the human race. If it sounds familiar, it’s because this has become something of a trope in science fiction over the past 60 years or so. Man is destroyed by his own creation.

Robots In Society

Surprisingly, Disney’s 2014 animation Big Hero 6 is probably closest to the mark when it comes to Hollywood predicting the future of robotics. Before you roll your eyes at the very notion that a Disney film is on the money when it comes to realism, hear me out. It features an inflatable healthbot called Baymax who has mad medical and emotional support skills. As the old saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention and the purpose of robots continues to be determined by the demands of our evolving societies. Due to an unprecedented decline in birth rates, statistics predict that the ageing population of Japan will result in a shortage of one million carers by the year 2025. Just to emphasise, that’s only seven years away guys. It is therefore unsurprising that healthbot production is the driving force behind innovative robotics. Ultimately, I like to think the solution will be somewhere between Big Hero 6 and the Doctor Hologram from Star Trek: Voyager.

Robots The Exhibition

The lecture speaker was a total dude called Ben Russell; Curator of Mechanical Engineering at London’s Science Museum and mastermind of the Robots exhibition currently touring the UK. You know, your classic underachiever. Robot guru Ben spoke about the pressure of creating an exhibition on a subject where preconceptions are pretty well-established thanks to the influence of film and television. Films, like Terminator, Bladerunner and Ex Machina depict robots, advanced to the point of perfection, flawless in both engineering and aesthetic. As an undertaking, it was a tall order.

In its final form, the Robots exhibition features an impressive selection of automatons from around the world and spanning centuries. Highlights include a replica of Eric, Britain’s first robot, a replica of ‘Maria’ from the 1927 film Metropolis and an eerily convincing newborn baby. Notably absent from the line-up is any offering from industry hotshots, Boston Dynamics. These guys are worth a quick Google because (as unremarkable as it sounds) there is something simultaneously impressive and unnerving about a faceless humanoid regaining is balance in snowy, uneven terrain. The company founder himself described a new hybrid model as “nightmare-inducing” …so it’s not just me being dramatic.

Boundless Potential

In spite of this, I actually left this lecture feeling hopeful about the future of artificial intelligence. Ben’s assertion is that modern robots are designed to perform jobs that fall into a category of one or more of the four D’s: dull, dumb, dirty, and dangerous. The Star Trek universe would have you believe that it is this concept which allows humans to focus on a boundless universe of potentially infinite progress. No longer weighed down by having to stack shelves at Tesco, drive cargo from place to place in huge lorries, or take out the bins; we as humans are free to explore the universe and advance our technology so that we can travel faster than the speed of light. This is perhaps slightly over-optimistic, but it’s a nice idea.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have Rossum’s Universal Robots, The Terminator, Westworld, The Matrix, and Blade Runner. All of these perpetuate the man destroyed by his own creation trope, at various stages of man’s destruction; the potential for a bleak and brutal future brought about by our attempts to escape our bleak and brutal past through the use of technology. Oh, the irony. And while that is still a possibility, I would reassure you, dear reader, with robot guru Ben’s calming words for when you worry that Skynet might be about to take over. His motto is “if your robot isn’t broken, it’s about to be”. And perhaps our worst fears about robotics can be allayed by the very thing that triggers our worst fears about robotics. We fear that when we try to make a form of life better than ourselves, our inherent flaws get transferred to the machine we create, and it functions in a way we don’t anticipate. But perhaps they simply won’t function at all.

Being Human

One thing is for certain: in the not-too-distant future, we will have some new and difficult ethical questions to answer, as a society and as a species. At what point does an artificial intelligence gain full sentience? If/when it does, should it count as a person? Can something non-human be classified as a person? If an android can be a person, what about my puppy? If we change our definition of person-hood to something based around self-awareness, at what point does a human become a person? Many of these questions are somewhat addressed in the films and TV series mentioned above, and for anyone who wants to consider this further, there is a wealth of philosophical science fiction available for the curious mind. Pick up anything by Phillip K Dick or Isaac Asimov, and go from there. As life often imitates art, so science often imitates science fiction.

@teamdwyer

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