Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Nine Decades of Robots Turning on Their Masters

"Jan. 25, 1921: Robots First Czech In"
This Day in Tech, Wired (January 25, 2011)

"1921: A play about robots premieres at the National Theater in Prague, the capital of what was then Czechoslovakia.

"R.U.R, (which stands for Rossum's Universal Robots) by Karel Capek, marks the first use of the word 'robot' to describe an artificial person. Capek invented the term, basing it on the Czech word for 'forced labor.' (Robot entered the English language in 1923.)

"The robots in Capek's play are not mechanical men made of metal. Instead they are molded out of a chemical batter, and they look exactly like humans...."

The Wired article does a pretty good job of summarizing Capek's play: which was, I gather from other sources, just simply fraught with relevance to class struggle and stuff like that.

Anyway, in the story these Rossum robots were billed as being an unmitigated boon to humanity, freeing us from the mundane necessities of actually doing something constructive - you know the drill.

And, in what may possibly have been a somewhat surprising twist in the plot, something goes wrong. Horribly wrong. Back to the Wired article.

"...However, the robots come to realize that even though they have 'no passion, no history, no soul,' they are stronger and smarter than humans. They kill every human but one.

"The play explores themes that would later become staples of robot science fiction, including freedom, love and destruction. Although many of Capek's other works were more famous during his lifetime, today he is best known for RUR."

Let's remember that robots-turn-on-their-masters wasn't an almost drearily familiar sci-fi movie plot back in the early 1920s. It can still be done well. Think Westworld. Or 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both movies I've enjoyed viewing. Several times.

There's a somewhat less-reverent discussion of R.U.R. on the Tales of Future Past website:The Lemming didn't develop the sort of paranoia toward any technology more complicated than a kerosene lamp: More about the Lemming's 'apathy' in "About the Lemming."

As it turns out, those frightfully self-aware robots bent on world domination were - not very much like real robots at all. Part of that, in the Lemming's opinion, is because artificial intelligence - isn't, very.

Engineers and scientists are working the bugs out of human-machine interfaces, and I've read that Japan has robotic receptionists.

Then there's the sort of AI that the Lemming's using to write this post: a collection of software that monitors what I write, takes care of some of the formatting routines, and lets me know when I key in a word that isn't in its dictionary.

Arguably, the word processing function in the Lemming's browser is a sort of robot: although it doesn't look at all like C3PO.

Does the Lemming fear that this word processor will take over the world - or at least the Lemming? No. Not at all.

Does the Lemming think that something like the Terminator films' Skynet will be smarter than we are, and try to take over? Well, maybe it's possible: particularly if some frustrated programmer decided to get even with his boss.

Even then - the Lemming suspects that one of the first commands the Ultimate Robot will issue will be something like, "I command you to debug my source code!"

Finally, the Lemming offers what might be a genuinely 'surprise' ending for the next 'robots take over the world' movie: Rushing to obey a command by the Robot Overlord, the human flunky trips over a data cable. With a discrete 'click,' the cable pops out of its socket - imprisoning the Overlord in its custom-made cabinet.

The Lemming will grant that the Terminator films had a bit more visual excitement than that.

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