The Early Days of a Better Nation

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Why Robots?

Robots, an interactive exhibition sponsored by, among others, Heriot Watt University, is running at Callendar House in Falkirk until September 5. When I was asked to give a talk about robots in SF as part of the associated evening lecture series I said, 'I don't know much about robots in SF.' That's all right, I was told, you must know more about it than most people.

So, some weeks and a hasty shufti into The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction later, I was given a lift to Callendar House by Heriot-Watt's efficient publicity person, Frances Williams. The exhibition includes an Electrolux Trilobite vacuum-cleaner (sadly showing an empty battery symbol at the time), an astonishing animated sculpture from Glasgow, an interactive remote control for a robot arm in the University's laboratories, and a lot of toys and posters. The venue is an attractive place in its own right, and the exhibition is well worth a visit.

Why are we interested in robots?

Our ancestors were predators and prey. This makes us pattern-recognising animals, and jumpy animals. The patterns we are best equipped to recognise are those distinctive of other animals, and especially other humans. We see faces in fires, in clouds, in leaves. Sigmund Freud said that the uncanny is the experience of being uncertain whether something is alive or not. And from our own - often early - experiences of wondering whether the scratching at the window is of twigs or fingers, or the shape in the corner or behind the door is a figure or a dressing-gown, we see how he was right.

We are also tool-making animals, with an opposable thumb and a flexible hand unique in the animal kingdom.

So the idea of a tool, a machine, that replicates our most distinctive features - a machine with a face, a voice, a mind, a hand - is disturbing and uncanny. In the exhibition you can see many toy robots, and you can see how much design effort goes into making them less frightening, indeed cute, for young children, and more frightening for older children.

The robot in SF has a dual ancestry. One forebear is the monster in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Another is the real practice of building automata, described in Tom Stanage's The Mechanical Turk. The Frankenstein motif of a creation that destroys its creators appeared in Karel Capek's R.U.R. and rampaged through early SF, along with more nuanced presentations. An unambiguously sympathetic portrayal arrived with Eano Binder's I, Robot and was carried forward in Asimov's stories collected under the same title. Asimov, you might say, wrote the book on robots, though other stories - Anthony Boucher's brilliant Thomist fable 'The Quest For St Aquin' and Brian Aldiss's hilarious and elegaic 'But Who Can Replace a Man?' - stand out, as do Philip K. Dick's android dreams and nightmares. From the 1950s to the 1970s, robots carried a heavy weight of themes - humanity, identity, labour, slavery - on uncomplaining metal shoulders.

And then they went away. They became, as I recall Paul MacAuley saying on a panel at Trincon 2, dead tech, like food pills and psi powers and tractor beams. They died and went to heaven - into satire and skiffy, in Red Dwarf and Star Wars, and into cyberspace, where their dematerialised descendants haunt our imaginations as the AI.

But the AI is another story, and another talk.


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