When I was a child in the sixties people used to say that in the 21st Century we would all have robot servants and we would eat little pills instead of food.
Thankfully the second part has not come to pass and we still have access to fresh tasty food. I don’t like swallowing tablets so I’d probably be anorexic by now if I had to eat a dish of pills at every meal.
Robots really have become part of our lives though and in some ways it seems that the science fiction writers got it right.
When I think of robots I can’t help but think of Isaac Asimov and his robot stories. David introduced me to his favourite SF writer when we first met and particularly to Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics”
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
In his later years Asimov played around with his laws a bit introducing a “Zeroth Law”. I also see there are many articles discussing whether these laws are possible or even ethical. I am not going there in this post. I am simply mentioning them.
The thrust of his idea was that humans were afraid of robots and the laws were there to make them feel safe. He actually wrote a lot about different ways that robots might develop because of this in his stories and some of it seems not far off the mark. U.S. Robots, the fictional robot manufacturer in the books turns to making small gadgets rather than humanoid robots because they are less intimidating.
As well as industrial robots which have been around for a long time we now have robots that help us around the home but don’t resemble us. Roomba for example. Nobody is scared of a little vacuum cleaner. You can put your cat on it and make a YouTube video. Outside there are pool cleaners and lawnmowers saving us tiresome chores. On the Ovation of the Seas we saw a robot bar. These are an adaption of the industrial robots that are used in manufacturing but they are cute.
Scientists are still working to create lifelike robots or androids but we are a long way from having a robot butler to take care of our every need. My guess is that it won’t happen in my lifetime although we may well see them in jobs in hospitality perhaps information booths but even this would be a bit of a gimmick as we’ve become used to dealing with automated, voice only services now. Would an AI receptionist be more popular or would we all become Luddites and want to destroy them as they took more jobs away or out of sheer frustration that they didn’t work properly?
Television and the movies have given us some positive role models for robots and androids. Robbie of course and the robot that was the best part of “Lost in Space”, terrible show, fun robot. R2D2 and C3Po are much loved if rather human in their behaviour and of course Star Trek Next Generation’s Data is probably the ideal of how we would like to interact with artificial intelligence. At least I hope so.
My favourite Asimov robot story was The Bicentennial Man and in it I think he was saying that we wouldn’t accept robots that were better than us but perhaps we should be more worried that they might be programmed to be just like the worst of us.