The public’s first encounter with a fictional robot was probably in the amazing 1927 German classic Metropolis, with its pioneering special effects and production design.
Much later, kids in the UK hid behind sofas as Dr Who brought us the menacing Daleks and (to my mind) the even scarier Cybermen.
The classic movie Forbidden Planet (and later shows like Lost in Space) introduced us to amazing automatons like Robby – a loyal robotic companion that did useful stuff, like defending you from scary monsters, or manufacturing vast quantities of booze on demand. What’s not to love?
Yul Brynner, as Westworld‘s murderous mechanical gunslinger, scared the crap out of us in the seventies, while a little later Star Wars brought two very annoying robots onto the big screen and they just won’t go away.
While we’ve yet to see a personal robo-chum of Robby’s calibre in real life, there are quite a few smaller and rather fun alternatives on the market. From dancing robots to cute pets and mean looking tooled-up warriors, they come in many shapes and sizes. Some even have buzz saws and flamethrowers (usually the robot-wars version, rather than the pets).
In Japan some incredibly sophisticated models have been created, for a range of different tasks (not just hoovering or mowing the lawn). In an increasingly isolated and ageing society, lonely souls can now cuddle up with a robotic seal for company. People with disabilities can don a robotic exo-skeleton to regain mobility and, perhaps, become heroic crime-fighters.
The Chinese have even developed a machine to take sperm samples from men in a clinical setting (a blowbot? Ex-sperminate!) Others anticipate a new era of fully functional synthetic sex companions, ready, willing and able to get jiggy on command. Whether this will spell the end of human dating and casual sex remains to be seen. The popularity of Real Dolls suggests there will be quite a market for it.
The military are, not surprisingly, at the forefront of much robo-research. They already have a mechanoid that can run faster than an Olympic sprinter, as well as those that fly and launch missiles at (hopefully) enemy targets. Their use raises very serious ethical implications that will no doubt continue to be hotly debated in the international arena.
Some of our smartest scientists have recently urged caution over the development of AI – artificial intelligence. They are concerned that one day a sentient machine might come to the obvious conclusion – humans are a bloody menace, and decide to remove us, restoring a degree of peace and harmony to this once beautiful blue planet.
While the classic Terminator scenario appears slightly implausible to most, it does seem wise to proceed with some caution. Fitting our artificial chums with a prominent off switch might be a smart move. Getting them to obey without question the three laws of robotics, devised by the great Isaac Asimov, would also help:
A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
A robot must obey the 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 Laws.
Ultimately robots are here to stay (or sit). They are already performing a huge range of tasks in industrial and medical settings. One day soon, we will have to wrestle with the implications of an artificial being that can breeze through the famous Turing test, developed by the brilliant British scientist, Alan Turing. It may be almost impossible to distinguish from a human, especially in the bad lighting of a nightclub.
We will have created something that is stronger, faster and smarter than a human. A entity that doesn’t complain, get hangovers or have existential crises after first massacring people in off-world colonies. I suspect that an ability to synthesise booze on demand, or make us a new outfit for a special occasion, will certainly help to ensure we’ll all get along famously.
*The title comes from the 1951 classic The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Copyright J.Lennick 2016 All rights reserved.
Pic from hammacher.com