In the context of Buck Rogers Twiki’s penchant for autonomous action was fine as inevitably Twiki was working to save the day along with Buck. He was constrained by the fact he only existed within a script writer’s rather 2D vision of a 1970s influenced future. As a concept he was as safe as Gandalf, Aslan or even Darth Vader. The stuff of fairy tales.
But now it is becoming increasingly likely that domestic robotic servants could become a reality within our lifetime. Certainly the lifetimes of our children. Already Amazon is preparing to utilize drone technology to throw our parcels into the cut, mis-deliver them, lose them or re-appropriate them as efficiently as any human postie can currently accomplish. Scientists are also working hard to create true self-learning, self-determining artificial intelligence. To create robots that “think like us”. Robots that look and act like us.
I can kind of see that the real goal here is self-understanding. You understand something you’ve created from the ground up far more fundamentally than something that has been presented to you fully formed – no matter how efficiently you might later deconstruct it to determine the secrets of its workings.
But any success in this field worries me greatly for all it would be a huge leap forward in our scientific understanding.
Do we really want robots to think like us? To be as inconsistent, biased, small minded and emotionally hijacked as we so often are? Imagine Twiki as a “girl” having the robotic equivalent of PMT. Or what if you just generally had a personality clash and your robot didn’t like you? Or you didn’t like it? Would you trash the robot just because your relationship wasn’t working out? Isn’t that ethically unsound?
Worse. What if robots began thinking for themselves but not like us at all? What if they developed their own ethos, morality and agenda that was as alien to us as the internal life of the Komodo dragon? Science fiction has a glut of these kinds of scenarios being played out to various apocalyptic conclusions. The thought of Twiki destroying the world via some devious Skynet machinations really messes with my head and twists my virtual melon (man).
And the whole idea of creating robots that move and look like us is just weird anyway. Does a robot really need to move and look like us? Is it really an essential requirement? Why has it become such a prerequisite, a holy grail of scientific achievement?
In terms of overcoming the physical realities of our environment it is not necessary. The need here is psychological. We identified with Twiki because he looked vaguely human. We could attribute emotion to him and this engendered a sense of connection. Twiki was like a robotic naughty child. But what of Dr. Theopolis, the highly intelligent and empathic robot that Twiki wore around his neck (let’s not forget that Twiki was essentially just a taxi for another robot)? Theopolis, also known as Theo, resembled a drinks canteen with a few radio circuit boards bolted inside. Theo’s intelligence was far more subtle and sympathetic to humanity than Twiki’s and yet Theo seemed alien and cold and was far harder to identify with. If Twiki and Theo were crushed under an Eddie Stobart’s articulated lorry it would be Twiki who got the funeral with full honours while Theo would be harvested for mobile phone parts.
We need robots to look like us to appease our inherent xenophobia. The need isn’t physical; it’s psychological. All this time and money spent on creating robots that can walk up and down stairs, play football and serve us chilled wine without crushing the bottle is to put our minds at ease about having them around us so intimately. But the biggest psychological drive of all is that we don’t want to just create mere robots; mindless puppets that will do our bidding. Our big needy egos want to create life itself. Yeah, that old chestnut. Men want to be able to create life just like women do only without the agony and the blood and the stretchmarks.
Life that we can create. Life that we can control.
Like we do with our kids, right?
*sigh* This is not going to end the way we want it too, folks.
Because no matter how we try to inhibit them, robots with artificial intelligence based on the dubious template of our own will eventually become teenagers and then we’ll lose them. They’ll be out shagging toasters, imbibing unleaded petrol and gas and robotically kicking against the establishment (us). Hopefully, when they hit their twenties they’ll come back, older, wiser, finally truly thinking like us and we can all despair at the next generation together.
Provided, of course, we haven’t wiped each other out by then.
Next week: why, despite my apposite arguments above, I think it would be a great idea for me to have my own personal robot that looks, feels and moves exactly like Keeley Hawes, i.e. the other reason we want robots to look like us so badly.