“A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.”
– Isaac Asimov, I, Robot
When it was suggested that I write about the possibility of robots taking over the world, I originally thought it was going to be easy. I’d talk a little bit about I, Robot, a book I’m familiar with. Then I’d go into a bit of detail about my favorite robots in fiction and then, finally, I’d end by saying that robots are not going to take over the world. Unfortunately my brain and life had other plans, as the issues I delved into in my research were, well, complex. So, I’m sorry Michael Yundt for taking so long. I hope the results meet your expectations.
The Origins of a Theme (The Original Robot Uprising)
Robots have been a concept in literature for a long time, but what is widely considered the original robot in literature is Tik-Tok from The Land of Oz, created in 1907. A truthful mechanical slave, he felt no emotions. He simply existed to serve his master.
That said, he was not described as a “robot.” The term wouldn’t be invented for 13 years.
Move forward to 1920 where Russian writer Karel Čapek created a play called R.U.R., which stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots. This famous play did the most to introduce the term “robot” into universal vocabulary.
But by far the most influential author of robot literature wouldn’t come until 1950, when Boston University professor Isaac Asimov wrote a collection of short stories called I, Robot. Just of note, however, is that Asimov’s bibliography is massive. He wrote around 500 books, several of which were about robots, which is just incredible.
This is where I take a moment to rant for a second. I like the 2004 movie starring Will Smith, but the movie is only very loosely based on the book. Nowhere in Asimov’s works is an actual uprising actually mentioned. Asimov was actually directly opposed to the possibility of one, much like I am. So don’t think that just because you’ve seen the movie means you are knowlegable of the book.
Anyway, I, Robot (the book) did nothing to quell peoples fears of new technology. Before you knew it, people were writing robot uprising books, plays, and TV shows left and right. Probably the most famous was the 1978 short-lived series Battlestar Galactica. In that series, the remaining humans had to flee the tyranny of the Cylons, who they created. The series was rebooted in 2005 into a heck of a science fiction series.
Technology Moves Forward Inevitably
Because of the increasing rate of humans relying on technology, we as a society have only gotten more scared. It’s why there are so many apocalyptic horrors in the movies today.
We already use automated machines we call robots to do the tasks we can’t do safely of efficiently. From assembling cars to drilling, automated machines has become necessary for modern life.
We can’t help but think that at some point on the line robots will be next. Soon, somebody will invent the positronic brain and we’ll be off to the races. I think the next step would be to make these machines emulate human form. I prefer to differentiate these human-form machines from other robots by calling them androids.
What is an android?
By definition, an android is a thinking robot that is created to emulate human from. This is something that I believe is within our grasp as a species, and I don’t think it will be very long before we start having religious and cultural arguments about android rights.
Because if an android is programmed to emulate emotions, as well as to think and adapt, at what point does that robot achieve sentience? At what point is that android actually alive? This is a question that I’m not prepared to answer, and while I don’t think I’ll have to in my lifetime, my grandchildren might.
For some ideas, I always like to turn to the most well-explored android currently in science fiction. Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation was an android who had no emotions but aspired to be human. He was a member of the crew, and the crew treated him no different from their other colleagues. For them, they had no doubt that Data was just as important to the universe as any human.
While that seemed realistic on that show, take into account that that was a Utopian society free from the constraints of limited resources. With limited resources, I’m not so sure the same point can be achieved.
So Will It Happen?
Will robots form an uprising against humans in the future? Will there be a robot apocalypse?
No. Or at least gosh I hope not.
But I will not say it’s not a plausibility. All it takes is enough technology and a person so evil that he or she creates robot with the capability to kill. I have more faith in humanity than that. Perhaps I should not.
I will say this. It all depend on how the robots are programmed. If they continue to be programmed for industry and production, we’ll be fine. But it’s when you get into the complexities of positronic brains and androids that you begin to develop some concerns. What happens if androids do overcome their programming and seek power.
I don’t know, and I don’t want to find out. I’m still hoping that Jesus will come back well before that point.
So in conclusion, like Isaac Asimov 65 years ago, I think a robot apocalypse is certainly possible. I just don’t think that humans will develop that way.
What I fear more is something only slightly different. I think that technology will make humans too stupid or too reliant on government to function. After all, if you can bury your desire in a smart phone equipped with detached social conditioning, why not. Life is far more about short moments of reward than achievement and integrity. At least, that’s where we’re headed.
The true robots of the apocalypse will be the people. Not the machines.
[Thanks to Michael Yundt for the suggestion!]