News & Politics

Robots Are Us: The Mystical Side of Science (and Fiction)

Three new, very different books all propose the same thing: merging humanity and robotics to transcend our mental and physical limitations. It's becoming more possible every day.
When I was a kid, I wanted a robot. In the twilight of the cold war, I spent my summer afternoons reading juvenile science fiction and looting dumpsters and construction sites for junk -- a tin drum for a torso, a TV for a head -- that I might one day assemble into a real robot. I remember thinking that in the year 2000 I'd be 30 years old. It seemed unimaginably distant. By then, I figured, I'd definitely have my own robot.

Technology still hasn't given me the intelligent android I wanted, but it has given today's kids fancier toys. My 13-year-old neighbor Heather likes to sit for hours at her computer creating families of virtual people called the Sims. Oblivious to the universe outside their pixilated cave, these digital dolls lie trapped in environments and situations created by a demiurge that has not even reached high school.







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Flesh and Machines: How Robots Will Change Us
by Rodney Brooks. Pantheon Books, 2002. 260 pp. $26.

The Secret Life of Puppets
by Victoria Nelson. Harvard University Press, 2001. 350 pp. $29.95

Kiln People
by David Brin. Tor Books, 2002. 336 pp. $25.95


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Heather's not very articulate about why she likes the Sims, but she's not alone in her obsession with human simulacra. Three new, very different books -- the first by a leading roboticist, the second by a cultural historian, and the third by a science fiction novelist -- all propose the same thing: that the machine we make in our own image is a powerful instrument of transcendence, an intermediary (what the ancient Greeks called anthropos) between this world and the next. By merging with our machines, these authors say, we will transcend our mental and physical limitations, gaining access to the secrets of our existence.

***

Robots are no longer science fiction metaphors or wish-fulfillment fantasies. According to the United Nations' World Robotics 2001 survey, there are at least 750,000 units in operation around the world building cars, vacuuming floors, and mowing lawns. These are automated laborsaving devices, more like washing machines than androids. Even the most entertaining and experimental robots today are little more than electrical marionettes -- the most autonomous are more akin to insects than to mammals. But governments and corporations are spending billions of dollars each year researching ways to mimic human motion and the human mind with steel and silicon, and they're getting results.

In his new book Flesh and Machines: How Robots Will Change Us, Rodney Brooks, director of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and probably the single most influential roboticist in the world, argues that our marionettes are about to come to life. "Today there is a clear distinction in most people's minds between the robots of science fiction and the machines in their daily lives," he writes. "Our fantasy machines have ... emotions, desires, fears, loves, and pride. Our real machines do not. Or so it seems at the dawn of the third millennium. But how will it look a hundred years from now? My thesis is that in just twenty years the boundary between fantasy and reality will be rent asunder."

Brooks is well known among roboticists for a concept called "subsumption architecture," which states that for machines to become creative problem solvers and communicators, they must be embodied, and their behavior must be split into simpler behaviors controlled by subunits. "To me," he writes, "it seemed that these sorts of intelligence capabilities are all based on a substrata of the ability to see, walk, navigate, and judge. My belief ... is that [intelligence capabilities] arise from the interaction of perception and action, and that getting these right was the key to more general intelligence."

Science fiction has always envisioned robots as metal buckets into which we'd dump programming that defined their personalities and goals, providing ready-made servants. In the real future, however, we may need to raise our intelligent robots just like children, with all the unpredictability and ethical complexity that implies.

Even seemingly simple tasks like walking and differentiating human faces have proved astonishingly difficult to replicate in machines, but Brooks feels that engineering problems like these can be licked within just a few years. The real problem is finding what he calls "the juice," the X factor that will transform an object into a subject, catalyzing self-awareness and all the agony and desire that entails. Brooks refuses to call the X factor a "soul," arguing instead that human beings are organic machines whose sense of self arises from crossing a "certain complexity threshold." If we are machines and we have emotions, he reasons, then we should be able to build other machines that have emotions. If we can't find "the juice," it's because our science is not yet advanced enough.

For Brooks, the creation of an intelligent, feeling humanoid represents the final victory of science over religion. Paradoxical as it might seem to some, robotics is really the quest to understand how a human is made so that we can become more than human. Even if science is unable to create an artificial person, Brooks says, the research will still yield technologies that will alter our relationship to ourselves forever. Together with biotechnology, robotics will give us "the keys to our own existence. There will be no need to worry about mere robots taking over from us. We will be taking over from ourselves with manipulatable body plans and capabilities easily able to match that of any robot. The distinction between us and robots is going to disappear."

***

How is it that a serious man of science like Brooks can discard the cautious jargon of his discipline to utter words as vatic as these? While most roboticists are not much more articulate than my 13-year-old neighbor in explaining why they want their very own robots, in The Secret Life of Puppets, Victoria Nelson argues that their work is part of an ancient quest to find god in ourselves, to transcend our human limitations. Like Brooks, but using far different language, Nelson describes the cyborg as the key to understanding a new human epoch, one that combines Aristotelian and Neoplatonic paradigms.

The history of human simulacra began in the ancient world. Plato, Nelson writes, claimed that all things in the mortal world of the senses were mere copies of ideals in the immortal "World of Forms." The statues of the ancient, animistic Greeks did not symbolize particular gods -- to them, the statue was the god on earth. Often built with articulated limbs or pipes that allowed priests to voice prophesy through the statue's mouth, human simulacra "were a point of literal congruence between transcendental spirit and physical matter, and thus a great and holy mystery. From this perspective, graven images that humans contrived in their own likeness stood in much closer relation to the gods than their makers did."

If this thought seems trippy to you, that's because most of us have inherited the tradition of Plato's student Aristotle, who defined the soul "in terms of its material function." By suggesting that the world could be known empirically through observations of nature and behavior, Aristotle gave humankind a great analytic tool, one that allowed us to discover the physical laws of the universe without resorting to divine providence. From the Aristotelian point of view, true knowledge is not derived from a world of forms beyond this one but from the world constructed by our five senses.

For more than two millennia, Aristotelian and Platonic ways of knowing have come together, flown apart, and vied for dominance, pitting the animistic and magical against the scientific and empirical. Human simulacra have continued to function as intermediaries between this world and the World of Forms, mutating through countless religious and literary traditions: "gods on strings" in English miracle plays, saints' images and relics, the automata of Francis Bacon's The New Atlantis, and so on. In the stories we've told ourselves since antiquity, simulacra appear as both gods and slaves. Medieval Jewish mystics invented the golem, a figure made from clay that contains "within himself the entire range of creation." Polish Jews, Jakob Grimm wrote in 1808, "use him as a servant to do all sorts of housework" though "on his forehead is written 'emeth' [truth]."

When Protestant revolutionaries strategically allied themselves with Cartesian rationalism and scientific progress, Platonism fell into sharp decline. As the Protestant bourgeoisie advanced in the 17th and 18th centuries, it banished Plato's World of Forms to the realm of superstition. Henceforth, transcendence came at the cost of damnation. Driven deeper underground by the industrial revolution, magic continued to rear its horned head in the sub-zeitgeist of popular entertainments such as plays and especially puppet shows. When in 1818 Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, the book most critics say launched modern science fiction, the puppet stepped into the age of electricity, carrying with it the ancient burden of the forbidden World of Forms.

In a key chapter called "The Great Twentieth Century Puppet Upgrade," Nelson brilliantly describes how science fiction became the Aristotelian carrier of the Neoplatonic virus, smuggling transcendence into Western culture under the guise of scientific romance. "In the Neoplatonic perspective," Nelson writes, "the preeminence of the machine brought about by the industrial revolution did not rob us of the idea of the soul at all. On the contrary, the machine received this idea, just at that critical moment when the old cosmogony gave way to the new.... In the realm of nineteenth- and twentieth-century science fiction, anything is possible if a machine brings it about.... The machine that most resonates with our secret divinizing needs is, naturally, the one we made in our own image."

Enter the robot, from the Czech robota, which means forced labor, first introduced to the world lexicon in 1920 by Karel Capek in his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots). Derived more from the legend of the Prague golem than any vision of scientific progress, R.U.R. tells the tale of artificial slaves who wipe out humanity in a violent revolution. As noted science fiction author Thomas M. Disch points out in his 1998 book The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: "[Capek's] robots are a nightmare vision of the proletariat seen through middle-class eyes at the historical moment of the first Bolshevik success in Russia.... The S.F. device of substituting robots for human workers allowed Capek to express ... that deep down we don't believe in the humanity of those whose labor we exploit. And not just the proles in sweatshops and factories, for in Capek's time virtually every middle-class household had its own staff of 'robots' in the form of cooks, maids, and scullions." After Capek's robots destroy all humans but one, they are threatened with extinction by their inability to reproduce. Only when two robots fall in love does the world's last man feel free to die, confident that robots made in our image will receive the soul of humankind.

Capek's ideas, deeply conflicted and ambiguous, were taken up in the 1920s by the budding "scientifiction" genre as another form of wish fulfillment. When soulless robots weren't raging through the pages of comic books and pulp magazines to express our repressed yearning for transcendence, they were waiting on us hand and foot, the perfect, guilt-free slaves.

In 1941, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov created the word robotics to describe a field of study that did not even exist at that time except as a hobby, using his stories to explore the ramifications of the robotic interface with humans. In Asimov's 1955 short story collection I, Robot, the robot takeover is subtler and more beneficial than in R.U.R., birthing a new era of prosperity. "There was a time," says Asimov's hero, "robopsychologist" Susan Colvin, "when humanity faced the universe alone and without a friend. Now he has creatures to help him; stronger creatures than himself, more faithful, more useful, and absolutely devoted to him.... They're a cleaner, better breed than we are."

Nelson would not be surprised to find Rodney Brooks repeatedly referring to Asimov's stories and thanking "science fiction writers and moviemakers [for challenging] the human spirit to soar beyond itself." It is a strange but true fact that science fiction directly inspired the field of robotics, not the other way around. Capek and Asimov coined the terminology and imagined the first robots, long before the scientists who read their books began researching ways to bring the golem to life. Nelson doesn't directly say so, but one can infer from her book that the entire field of robotics carries within it the yearning for transcendence that began with statues of Athena and Apollo.

To Nelson, the steadily rising influence of science fiction and growing acceptance of machines signals "the reemergence of the benign supernatural from the shadow of the demonic grotesque." As the Neoplatonic machine merges with the Aristotelian human, Nelson says, the result will be a new synthesis that retains the best of both sensibilities. In the "new Renaissance" that is coming, she predicts, our consciousness will expand "beyond the one-sided worldview that scientism has provided us over the past three hundred years."

This is exactly the premise of Kiln People, the new novel from Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author David Brin. A stylistically flat but serviceable genre writer, Brin describes a late-21st-century earth inhabited by nine billion human beings and, on any given day, an additional 18 to 24 billion clay golems.

In Brin's future, science has never been able to artificially create "the juice" that Brooks says is needed to bring robots to life. Instead, duplicate bodies are baked in kilns and imprinted with the souls of individual humans. Cheap and universal, the technology allows organic people to live lives of idle leisure while their copied selves -- called "dittos" -- are out working jobs and running errands. Brin resurrects the myth of the guilt-free slave by blurring the line between slave and master, as hundreds of parallel lives are channeled through a single organic body.

When the scientist most responsible for ditto technology, Yosil Maharal, is murdered, "ditective" Albert Morris investigates. Maharal's "ghost" -- a ditto left over after the real person's death -- kidnaps one of Morris's duplicates and takes it to a secret underground lair. There the ghost of Maharal uses the ditto Morris in an experiment that will allow human beings to transcend corporeal form altogether. After the ditto Morris is strapped into Maharal's machine, his soul crosses the line into "God's domain." Surveying 10,000 years of struggle against sickness and hunger, the golem experiences an epiphany: "Technology. That's what made things better! That's where we found answers ... that applied to lord and vassal alike.... So, why not use technology to solve the greatest age-old riddle -- immortality for the soul?"

Elevated to godhood, the ditto Morris discovers "a vast plane of hyper- reality, running parallel to all we know" -- a "soulscape" that is obviously Plato's World of Forms. Thus does technology bring transcendence through the power of human simulacra. At the beginning of the 21st century, this is the myth that defines our relationship to our machines.

***

In a 1972 talk called "The Android and the Human," science fiction visionary Philip K. Dick anticipated this myth. Computers and robotics, he said, were reviving animism and magic after hundreds of years of repression. "Machines are becoming more human," he told his audience. "Our environment, and I mean our man-made world of machines -- is becoming alive in ways specifically and fundamentally analogous to ourselves." Dick said that he initially feared this development. "I took it for granted that if such a construct had a benign or anyhow decent purpose in mind, it would not need to disguise itself. Now, to me, that seems obsolete. The constructs do not mimic humans; they are, in many deep ways, actually human already." Someday, Dick went on to imagine, a human might shoot a robot and see it bleed, and when the robot shot back, the human would gush smoke. "It would be rather a great moment of truth for both of them," he said.

Dick probably sounded crazy to the part of his audience that wasn't stoned, but today what he said is perfectly plausible. In the first world, PCs and PDAs are ubiquitous and linked together by the World Wide Web, a medium Nelson credits with "single-handedly moving the dormant Platonic sensibility from its exile in [fantasy and science fiction] back into the mainstream." >From early childhood to late decrepitude, we play and work with machines that talk to us, help create music and art, take care of our bodies, and make simple decisions that can change the course of our lives. And we don't mind. After centuries of distrust, we've learned to love our machines. In popular, mainstream films such as Terminator II, The Matrix, and Bicentennial Man, we even embrace the human/machine hybrid as a path to expanded consciousness.

But does this liberatory myth obscure a more oppressive reality? Could the cradle of technology be rocking us to sleep, particularly those of us who are insulated by education, class, or geography from the economic changes that accompany technology's progress?

Until the 19th century, the vast majority of human beings grew their own food, selling the surplus to other farmers or to a relatively small number of townsfolk. Along came the reaper, the steel plow, the cotton gin, and then later the tractor. By 1900 only a third of the U.S. population worked in agriculture. By 1940 that fraction had fallen to a fifth. Today it stands at 3 percent and falling. This transition -- which continues today in the third world -- hasn't been pretty. Peasants and farmers forced off their land have gone to work in factories, sites of deadening exploitation and sometimes violent class warfare.

In the first world, workers have for decades been pushed out of factories into the service sector as factory jobs have been automated or shipped to the third world, a process that economist Jeremy Rifkin calls the "third industrial revolution." If Brooks is right and we are mere decades from autonomous, creative androids, then work in the service sector will dry up too -- robots can wait tables just as well as humans, and their owners can program them not to unionize.

Ideally, automation should free up more leisure time for all human beings. Since the middle of the 20th century, however, robotic labor has meant greater profits for a few and unemployment or permanent economic insecurity for the many. Our global future is ultimately shaped more by those who control the means of production than by the technology itself.

Are the majority of people then doomed to lives of obsolescence, as so many science fiction writers have predicted? In the automated economy, we may not know what to do with ourselves, and if that situation is combined with endless poverty, then social catastrophe seems inevitable. In such a future, the transcendence offered by our machines would be an escape from terrible reality, not a gateway to long life and higher consciousness.

But if science fiction has taught us anything, it*s that there are many possible responses to technological change. Under agricultural modes of production, spirituality and religion told us how to live our lives. Under capitalism, we found meaning in the market. Today, our environment is coming to life, knitting human and machine perception together in a cloth that covers the entire world. In the global, Neoplatonic future anticipated by Brooks, Nelson, and Brin, we may find meaning in our robots and in the World of Forms that we are building with our electronic media. Right now that World of Forms is plastered with corporate logos, and in the real world, robots work only for the rich. This is the path to disaster. To survive, we may need to transcend an economy and a culture that says inequality is inevitable and necessary.

Will I have my robot by the time I'm 50? Maybe. Maybe I'll be the robot. Whether this extends and gives new meaning to my life, or condemns me and billions of others to an alienated, poverty-ridden existence, time will tell. The future is what we make it.

Jeremy Smith, former publisher of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice, is the director of membership services at the Independent Press Association. A different version of this essay first appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian.
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