Robot Saviours

Article by Michael Szollosy

Tscc_3We’ve all seen the terrifying headlines:

‘Rise of the Cybermen: The Terminator-style bionic ear that could give people “superman” hearing
‘Terminator is nigh: Shape-shifting material that instantly switches from solid to liquid could lead to a new generation of robots

And the rest.
Undoubtedly, there is a great deal of anxiety out there about the development of robots and artificial intelligence. Some of these fears are well-founded, of course, and some less so. We’ve been presented in the popular media so often – in films, video games and in the popular press –  with the image of robotic monsters and genocidal AI that it’s a wonder that public have not demanded that these dangerous toys be taken from scientists and forever locked away, their development forever prohibited for the good of all life on earth as we know it. (A similar public attack is underway regarding GMOs, for example; again, many of these are well-founded and some are not.)

However, increasingly, we are seeing another side to our imaginations of what robots can do, will do, to us, for us. No longer are they simply the laser-gun-wielding psychopaths, or the disembodied masterminds orchestrating the end of the human race. Robots and AI have also now become not only our carers (e.g. Robot and Frank), our lovers (Her) and even our children (A.I., Chappie).

new-poster-for-chappie-humanitys-last-hope-isnt-humanAnd now, even more optimistically, they have become our saviours, the final great hope for humanity.

This is quite a turnaround, in terms of public relations.

Consider, for example, the tagline on the posters for Chappie, New Blomkamp’s take on the birth of sentient AI and the Singularity:

Humanity’s Last Hope Isn’t Human

Or consider Daniel H. Wilson’s 2011 novel, Robopocalypse: we are presented with a story about the rise of AI and robots and the destruction of humanity. But absolutely essential in humanity’s fight back are not only technologically-enhanced humans (armed with prosthetics and neural implants), but our new robot allies, good robots that help us battle the bad robots.

Or, going further back, consider more widely the Terminator series: in the first movie,, from 1984, Arnold Schwarzenegger is most certainly, unambiguously the Bad Guy, sent by a future AI to ensure that human resistance against machine-rule dies in its (or his) infancy. But already by the second film, , in 1991, Arnie is already the Good Guy protecting humanity from the next robot threat. And by the fourth in the series, in 2009, it is inevitable to avoid a certain degree of spoiling just by mentioning that the title is Terminator: Salvation. (And 2015’s Terminator: Genisys [sic] promises more of the same.)



All of this might seem like a positive step in the right direction for those whose work is dedicated to building useful machines that help humanity, as the bad PR of snarling chrome skulls (and THAT picture) are replaced with more wholesome and realistic ideas of robots caring for the elderly and helping the sick and disabled – and on some levels this absolutely needs to be applauded – but there is also the worry that this new conception of robots is really just the other side of the very same coin: that the idealisation of robots and AI as humanity’s last great hope is not actually that much different from the demonisation of robots that preceded it.

Terminator-The-Sarah-Connor-Chronicles-Season-1Of course the idea that robots, and technology more generally, will be the humanity’s salvation is not a terribly new idea, and certainly has been around as long – or perhaps even longer – than the technological monsters that have come to dominate the popular media. Frankenstein’s monster, for example, was conceived as a warning of what could go wrong with humanity’s new technological prowess, despite our noblest intentions (and is itself a post-Enlightenment version of the classic Faust myth).

Android Superhero and Arch-villain – get ready to see more of The Vision and Ultron in the coming weeks.

Android Superhero and Arch-villain – get ready to see more of The Vision and Ultron in the coming weeks.

And conceptions of the future since have always been manichean: utopian visions have always competed alongside dystopian versions, and though the nightmare images are more often (and popularly) the stuff of our fictions there have always been groups, from the Futurists to the posthumanists, that are ready to embrace the brave new world.

But uncritical optimism is often driven by the same sort of (often unconscious) anxieties and fears that give rise to the images of robotic monsters; likewise, misinformation and unrealistic expectations are the source of both unrealistically positive and negative beliefs.

So while the robo-enthusiast and AI-champion might welcome this cultural shift towards more positive social attitudes towards technology, it might not be all good news. We have to resist the vicissitudes of love and hate, demonisation and idealisation, and approach these questions – as always – with rational discussion and education.

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