Klaatu barada nikto!*

Robby the RobotAs a kid I loved robots and would never be disappointed to receive one as a birthday gift.

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

18 thoughts on “Klaatu barada nikto!*

  1. It is frightening. I was listening to some robotics/AI scientists on BBC R4, the other day, and they were saying we need to get a international code of ethics set-up asap because developments in these areas are moving extremely fast now.

    On the flip-side, I don’t think AI will ever match the sophistication of the human brain. Neuroscientist’s are discovering more and more capabilities we didn’t realise our brain’s had, but they have yet to discover how the brain manages to do most of them. AI itself has revealed many of things we take for granted, things our brain’s find simple to process, are extremely difficult to replicate artificially.

    Liked by 2 people

    • While the brain’s complexity may seem beyond anything we could create now, I wouldn’t bet against it being matched one day. If you consider how far we’ve come in just a few thousand years – from stone tools and wooden spears to the ISS and quantum computing, it’s pretty head spinning. The pace is also accelerating, so I suspect the developments of the next couple of centuries will be even more extraordinary than what we’ve seen so far (The Singularity perhaps?).

      I agree we definitely need to get to grips with the ethics and implications of these emerging sectors.


      • Having read and watched a lot of stuff about the brain, the thing that stands out for me, is just how incredibly weird it is. For example, the past lives we create for ourselves (our past memories) are not even remotely the same as what really happened to us. Our brain filters, reorders, makes-up stuff, just to fit in to an ideal view of ourselves. The reality is, we haven’t lived the lives we think we have! Scientists studying human memory processes say it is so bad it shouldn’t be relied upon in court.

        And the way our brain’s construct ‘reality’ for us, again, it’s just so far removed from what we imagine our brains are doing. That’s one of the main reasons I think we’ll never match it with AI.


      • I agree that my recollections as an international playboy millionaire don’t seem to mesh with the reality.

        If you are suggesting that we’ll never build anything as inaccurate, bias-driven and buggy as a our brain, I agree with you. I’m pretty sure in a century or two, artificial ones will be vastly superior and humans will have become an underclass of slow, dim-witted morons, rather like the movie Idiocracy..


  2. Ill admit this AI thing does worry me, have none of these people seen the Terminator franchise? AI just smacks of laziness to me, to develop machines to do tasks that humans are too lazy to do and so they create an AI to mimic it. No Computers are find as is, tools for us to use rather than us having to run and avoid Hunter Killers in a ruined city in a not so far off apocalypse, and i am not talking about another conservative government.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Jason, as your blog won’t allow me to reply further on thread above, I’m having to come down here?

    Our brains are supremely good at doing what they’ve evolved to do – any that’s not number crunching or recalling events verbatim. Human brain’s have far more important things to do, and things like ‘precision’ recall is irrelevant and would just get in the way.

    I don’t think you’ve thought deeply enough about this? Think of all the millions of things our brains do every day. Controlling, protecting and repairing our bodies. The thousands of things our hands can learn to do. Watch Novak Djok’ play tennis – how many systems is the brain controlling to allow him to do that? And that’s just a few physical examples.

    Then there’s things like imagination, emotions, logic, art, music, philosophy, language, complex social interaction, self-awareness (consciousness), learning, science, desires, perception … All functions of the amazing, wonderful human brain.


    • I don’t disagree that the human brain is a marvel, the most extraordinary and complex thing we know of. But given the extraordinary and exponential growth of scientific knowledge and technology, it’s rarely wise to say ‘never.’

      To our ancestors from just a few centuries back, almost everything we now take for granted would be considered impossible (and probably witchcraft). We are probing the nature of matter, the universe and how the brain functions to a degree never considered possible even a century ago. Yesterday’s science fiction tends to become becomes tomorrow’s science fact.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I also loved robots as a kid and still find them a fascinating subject now. Unsurprisingly, then, I enjoyed the post a lot. The highlight, though, was “ex-sperminate” — easily the best pun I’ve heard so far this year.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Jason, I can’t foresee us ever being confronted with the so-called ‘singularity’. Sure, Deep Blue can win a chess game, but that is nor indicative of any intellectual thought at all; merely the ability to scroll through a very complex flow-chart of possible moves at high speed.

    I certainly believe, however, that many ‘middle class’ jobs will soon cease to exist. I speak of any non-specialised solicitors, accountants, fleet managers and procurement managers, most of the back-room staff in government offices and large corporations, and many GPs. There will always be a demand for anyone who does what no computer or robot could ever do, such as dentists, plumbers, builders, shop sales staff, and, of course…writers!


    • Well it’s still early days in robotics and we already have robots that assemble cars, serve drinks and even perform surgery. There are also some that can create fiction, albeit terrible fiction.

      I don’t think we’ll see a fully conscious intelligent AI anytime soon. But human beings have a habit of making wildly inaccurate predictions about the future and underestimating the results of exponential growth as well as the impact of new discoveries.

      There’s that wonderful scene in the film 2001 where the primitive human ancestor throws a bone into the air, then it cuts to a shot of the space ship. It neatly sums up the staggering changes we’ve seen in just a few short chapters in the story of life on Earth.


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