The Early Days of a Better Nation

Friday, December 23, 2011

War with the Newts

Karel Čapek's play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) set the agenda for the robot in SF, not least by naming it. Its 2011 republication in the Gollancz SF Masterworks series (in one volume with Capek's 1936 novel War with the Newts, and informatively introduced by Adam Roberts) gives us a fresh opportunity to look at this taproot text. We all know the story: robots are created to serve humanity, and after some time they rise up and destroy their human masters. If we've read a little more about the play, we know that Čapek's robots aren't mechanical but quasi-organic: what in later SF would be called androids or replicants. Few of us have actually read it. More of us should.

I didn't know until I read the play a few weeks ago that it's funny. And I'd never reflected on the significance of its place and date of publication: Prague, 1920. When the risen robots issue a manifesto to all the robots of the world, propagated in leaflets by the shipload, the echo of the Russian revolution is loud and clear. Other aspects of the rebellion evoke a slave - or colonial - uprising. From their first clunky steps, robots in SF have carried a heavy freight of human anxieties.

A month ago I spent three days in Amsterdam, as a guest of the International Conference on Social Robotics 2011, where I gave the closing keynote. The opening keynote was by a much more consequent speaker: the academic, inventor and entrepreneur Tomotaka Takahashi, who charmed and amazed us all with his cute and accomplished humanoid ROPID and his energetic toy robot Evolta (of Panasonic battery ad fame), and gave us an intriguing rationale for creating small humanoid robots: small for safety, humanoid because we can talk to them without feeling self-conscious, thus making them an ideal interface for all the other gadgets we have around the house. But the best reason, he said, was 'creating new fun', as Steve Jobs did with the iPhone.

There was much fun to be had: social robotics is a new and thriving field, looking at the integration of robots into society through a cluster of lenses, from the technical through the sociological to the cultural. Papers presented ranged from empirical studies of human-robot interaction to such wonderfully speculative flights as the pressing question of whom (or what) to sue if a sexbot AI steals your partner's affections. There was a lively exhibit of work-in-progress posters, some accompanied by demonstrations of actual robots. The programmable Nao robot has become a test platform for much research, and has even been used in robot theatre and stand-up. (I suggested to Heather Knight, the impressario of these events, that a production of R.U.R. with Nao robots would be screamingly funny, but she didn't think it feasible.) Some intrepid engineers are even working on general-purpose humanoid household robots, and pit their creations against each other in the competition RoboCup@Home (inspired by the robot football competition, RoboCup) with sometimes hilarious results.

My impressions, from the exhibits and from the entries in the competition which I took part in judging, are that some of the most immediately applicable work is being done with unwell children and the frail elderly. Children with autism, in particular, seem to benefit measurably from interaction with friendly, cuddly robots. These robots are sophisticated, but remotely controlled in real time by concealed operators - what's known as the 'Wizard of Oz' approach, which is also widely used as a quick-and-dirty method of gauging human-robot interaction.

I find myself wondering whether we'd be working with humanoid robots at all, let alone mentally and verbally classifying them with mechanisms as diverse as autonomous vaccum-cleaners and industrial arms, if it weren't for SF, through Dick and Asimov and all the way back to Čapek. Just as well, perhaps, that intelligent marine creatures haven't crawled ashore - yet.

Labels: ,

14 comments | Permanent link to this post

Monday, December 12, 2011

Year's Best SF 29

The table of contents for Gardner Dozois's 2012 anthology The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Ninth Annual Collection is now online, and I'm very pleased to say that I have two stories in it: 'Earth Hour' and 'The Vorkuta Event'.

Given the eldritch viccissitudes that the latter story went through before its eventual (and still viccissitude-dogged) truly splendid publication, I am even more well chuffed than you might expect.

Labels: , , ,

1 comments | Permanent link to this post

Friday, December 02, 2011

The word from a silent sky

Yesterday I read Karl Schroeder's post on a new paper on the Fermi Paradox. Karl makes the interesting suggestion that if aliens exist, their technologies are indistinguishable from natural objects. Karl had come up with the idea of a technology indistinguishable from nature in the quite different context of trying to imagine the future development of our technology. He takes the apparent absence of aliens as at least consistent with this projection: if it holds true for us, and if we are not alone, and if we are a typical intelligent species, then a Galaxy swarming with alien civilizations would look (to us, now) just like a Galaxy with no aliens at all. So what we see (and, more to the point, don't see) is just what we would expect.

It strikes me that the arguments over the existence of aliens have an interesting structural similarity to certain arguments over the existence of God. There's a type of atheist argument that says, in so many words, that the non-existence of God is manifest by just looking out of the window: if God existed, we would know about it. There's a type of theist argument that says if God exists, his existence is necessarily hidden from us, and the world outside the window - a universe that looks as if it works all by itself - is just what we would expect.


Labels: , ,

18 comments | Permanent link to this post