Wednesday, 10 December 2014


Side step three. Peter Grehan, currently writing a Doctor Who related book for Candy Jar Books, reviews the third edition of BBC 2's Tomorrow’s Worlds – a programme about the history of sci-fi. 

I suppose it was a fortuitous coincidence for Tomorrow’s Worlds: the Unearthly History of Science Fiction that Prof Stephen Hawking stated last week that, "The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race." It was fortuitous because the subject of Saturday’s edition of this four part series being discussed by Dominic Sandbrook was robots; or rather robots, androids, intelligent computers and cyborgs. All of these could be described as various forms of artificial beings. Given the complexity of the subject he did a pretty could job of summarising their history within science fiction given the limitations of a sixty minute TV programme. 

To do so though he had to restrict himself to probably the best known theme of robots and other artificial beings and that is their tendency to turn against us. Dominic uses as his starting point Mary Shelley's Frankenstein – or the Modern Prometheus published in 1818, but it is the Boris Karloff version of the creature that he suggests is the justification for classifying it as robotic. As he says, “His jerky, lumbering movements and the electrodes in his neck suggest something far more mechanical.” I would suggest that a biological robot is still a robot, it doesn’t need to be mechanical, especially since the origin of the word “robot” comes, as he says, from Karel Capek’s 1921 play, R.U.R. – Rossum's Universal Robots. These were manufactured biological robots created as a cheap labour force for the many factories around the world. The fact was they were slaves and manufactured not to care, at least not at first, because later their creators began to make them too clever. Dominic suggests that the play reflected the growing mistrust of automation and mechanisation in factories, but I would suggest that, so soon after the Russian Revolution of 1917, the play reflected more the ruling classes’ anxiety of an increasingly better educated proletariat deciding to exercise their power against them.

This is perhaps the greatest omission from the episode, the important metaphorical role that artificial beings perform in science fiction. They will often represent the hubris of the scientist, and his unwillingness to accept his responsibilities as in the case of Frankenstein, which is just as relevant to the scientists developing nuclear weapons during the Second World War or the scientists working today to exploit the environment and ignoring the damage it does to the ecology. Or they could refer to some social or political tension, as in the case of RUR perhaps something that becomes increasingly relevant once more with the increase in pro-capitalist economic liberalism being advocated in modern Western governments. They may also be used to explore the tensions of race relations in the U.S. as was the case in Tower of Glass by Robert Silverberg, published in 1970, but still relevant today. In the case of Isaac Asimov’s Robots they represented science and technology as a force for good, something that would benefit mankind and progress him to a brighter, better future. 

These were the science fiction stories of the Golden Age, an age of optimism before the cynicism of the post nuclear age. Asimov’s robots and their three Laws became a template for the good robot, like Robbie from Forbidden Planet.

There is another role that the robot has, touched on by Dominic, and that is their ludic quality. It can take the familiar and add another dimension that is fresh and interesting. It is the comic relationship between Laurel and Hardy that is transferred to CP3O and R2D2 and refreshed in the Star Wars movies of George Lucas. As he says, “I think the audience were surprised by the relationship between R2-D2 and C-3PO” In a similar way the murder mysteries of Agatha Christie are given a new twist, when the murderer is an Asimov robot in Doctor Who:The Robots of Death.

But from Star Wars we are jolted back down to Earth with the Cyborg killers from Terminator, essentially killer robots that wear an exterior of human skin as a camouflage to allow them to blend into human society and seek and destroy their targets. It also brings us back to the Stephen Hawking quote about the dangers of creating machine intelligence. The stimulus for Terminator was the ‘Star Wars’ defence program, more correctly referred to as Strategic Defense Initiative and inspiration for Skynet, the A.I. computer designed to control the USA’s nuclear arsenal in the film that breaks free from its programming and merges with its Soviet counterpart. Having done so Skynet decides that human beings are just too dangerous to be allowed to exist any longer and it uses the weapons it has been placed in charge of to do so. The moral of the story is clear, design something to kill people and then make it intelligent, it will probably do what it was designed to do. Foolish, foolish humans.

Another thing robots do is reflect us so that we can ask, what makes us human? If they look like us and talk like us and think like us, in the way that the Cylons do in Battlestar Galactica and Replicants do in Blade Runner at what point can we say they are not human? And what if we take a human body and increasingly replace parts of it with synthetic equivalents, at what point does it cease to be human? In the most extreme case, the Cybermen, it seems the point has been well passed, but it is their missing emotions that are the important component, rather than their missing organs and limbs. 

It is the mental, not the physical that really matters as both Robocop and Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange illustrate. It is drugs and brainwashing that removes the humanity from the physically intact, if sociopathic, Alex and maybe that’s what we should be more wary off than thinking technology? 

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