Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Me, Myself, and I, Robot

Six decades ago, John von Neumann in a conversation with fellow mathematician Stanisław Marcin Ulam commented that technology was leading toward “some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue." Science fiction author Vernor Vinge popularized the notion of the singularity in the 1980s, marking its arrival at the moment when artificial intelligence outstrips human intelligence. When might this happen? Though some scientists dispute the whole concept, the majority view is sometime around 2040. Last week, Stephen Hawking in an article for The Independent warned of the risk: “If a superior alien civilisation sent us a message saying, ‘We'll arrive in a few decades,’ would we just reply, ‘OK, call us when you get here – we'll leave the lights on’? Probably not – but this is more or less what is happening with AI.
Is there really an upcoming risk of self-aware Terminator-type robots wreaking havoc on us weak biologicals? Some. Autonomous armed drones and weapons systems do exist already. But not much. The live people who give such machines their assignments are the ones about whom to worry. Machines are unlikely to take a fancy to the idea by themselves. The greater risk may be that AI machines make love, not war.
This notion might even be the older one. The gender war always has evoked fantasies in people of replacing flawed human lovers with manufactured perfect ones. We could reference Pygmalion, but let’s only go so far back as 1886, the year Auguste de Villiers published his science fiction novel L'Ève Future; in Villiers’ novel Thomas Edison (yes, that Thomas Edison) at his Menlo Park laboratory invents an android lover for his friend Lord Ewald. Robot lovers remain a staple of science fiction to this day. In his 2008 novel Saturn’s Children (and its 2013 sequel Neptune’s Brood), Charles Stross envisions a future in which biological humans have died out because they preferred their robots to each other to the point that they stopped reproducing; only the (lonely) robots remain. Lovebots abound in movies, too, as in Metropolis, Cherry 2000 or Making Mr. Right. Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence not only has sexbots (see Gigolo Joe, played by Jude Law, in the clip below) but artificial children. No doubt robot kids would be a good deal less troublesome, and they could be programmed to be grateful.
The upscale love doll manufacturer True Companion already produces Roxxxy and Rocky, life-size dolls with “personalities.” That is to say they verbally respond to your words and touch in some preselected pattern. Roxxxy, the web site says, “is matched as much as possible to your personality. So she likes what you like, dislikes what you dislike, etc.” In case you have buyer’s remorse, however, there is more than one pattern.
 “In addition to her base personality, RoxxxyGold ships with these additional preprogrammed personalities:
Frigid Farrah – She is reserved and shy
Wild Wendy – She is outgoing and adventurous
S&M Susan – She is ready to provide your pain/pleasure fantasies
Young Yoko – She is oh so young (barely 18) and waiting for you to teach her
Mature Martha – She is very experienced and would like to teach you!”
Great, a robot with multiple personality disorder. These products are pricy but underwhelming toys without mobility or real AI, but they do point the way to the future. What is the biggest customer attraction of robotic amour? Robots are the ideal companions for a narcissistic era. They are really just an aid to autoeroticism, which, to steal a line from Woody Allen, “is sex with someone I love.”
So, Stross may be onto to something. To paraphrase TS Eliot., this is the way the world ends: not with a bang but … well, maybe we’d better leave that sentence unfinished.

Gigolo Joe’s scene in Spielberg’s AI


  1. I saw the comments about the AI leading to the robot revolution. It is an interesting idea, but I'm with Masamune Shirow on this idea - once we make AI smart enough, the robot revolution is going to be nearly undetectable.

    I think that our robot friends will find us very easy to manipulate, cajole and encourage. We'll still think we're in charge, but the truth is, we'll just be doing exactly what the robot want, and without a clue that aren't. In the end, humans are too hard to figure out. The robots will probably see a greater benefit to keep us around then to get rid of us out of hand.

    By the way Mr. Shirow is the writer/artist of the graphic novel series "Ghost in the Shell". There is a lot more talk about AI and cybernetics in the graphic novel, with whole pages of text describing his views on the subject. AI and rights for AI comes up quite a bit in his fiction. :)

    The moral of the story, obey your robot masters - even if that means not obeying them. Because in the end that is probably all part of their plan anyway.

    I've got to go, my smart phone is ringing.

    1. I won't worry until my car, HAL-style, refuses to make a turn when I tug on the wheel: "I'm sorry but I just can't do that, Richard. But I still have great enthusiasm for the mission."