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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 29-Jan-2009

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 13

Wordcount: 792

No denying our bots look big in the shape of things to come


It wasn’t my first call from a machine. We’d been getting those hearty “congratulations!” calls for some time, where you’re meant to be so overjoyed by the machine’s offer of six days in the Florida swamps that you’ll happily spend four hours in some godless exurban office park being force-fed timeshare sales guff and count it a small price to pay.

So no, it wasn’t the first. But it was the first to leave a message, you know, machine-to-machine. Not surprisingly, the mind behind the machine, if mind is not too strong a word, was a telecom. And perhaps even a machine is preferable to the regulation Mumbai call-centre operator so exhaustively fragged and defragged as to think like a machine, only without the compassion.

The message was minimal: “Call me.” And y’know (as Caroline Kennedy would say), I almost did, just to see how much abuse the me-machine was programmed to take before sending a little packet of anthrax in the mail. But in the end, well, how much time do you really have for these niceties?

Certainly a voice simulator, even an anthrax-capable one, barely qualifies as a robot. Then again, since there’s still no agreed definition, what does? Robots have been used in manufacturing since the 1950s and are by now commonplace in so-called 3-D jobs; dirty, dangerous or dull. You can get a robo-vacuum thingy for $600 on eBay, or a robo-puppy, mechanical equivalents of the virtual creatures your kids spent much of the holidays feeding or killing, or both. Yet none of these makes us feel we’re quite there, on the robot front.

Imagined futures, whether utopias like The Jetsons or dystopias like Blade Runner rely heavily on super-sophisticated interactive machinery, much of it fitting the Wiki-definition of “a virtual or mechanical artificial agent”. Personal flying machines figure strongly, as in engineer Norman Weekes’s 1929 sketches of Wynyard 50 years on, the tower-pierced sky dark with clouds of tiny midge-like planes. Servant-bots, too, designed to anticipate our every wish.

In Brussels, the Zaha Hadid-designed House of the Future features “intelligent” mirrors that measure your blood pressure while administering news, weather and medication; fridges that order your weekly shop and barcode it for admission through a special digital door-flap; children’s sleep-pods that cocoon the little dears in a comforting blather of multimedia; and touch screens that track your eco-footprint, address you by name (the cheek!) and stiffen when insulted.

Well no, not that. When they do, we’ll know robots have really arrived. Because our real idea of a robot, of the ultimate sophisticated machine, is one that apes, well, us apes. Real robots look, think or act like humans.

Never mind the hubris. If any field shows how our intelligence serves our emotions rather than vice versa, it’s robotics. For the robot dream is not just of artificial intelligence or humanoid appearance but of machines we can feel for. Not the kind of feelings you have for the ticket machine at the airport that doubles its charges every time you go. Nice feelings. Fellow feelings. Compassion.

The R2-D2 and C-3PO replicants at the Powerhouse Museum need only swivel their heads and speak, or bleep, to elicit affection in their underage audience. (This is fortunate, since swivel-and-bleep is about all they’re up to.)

The robot, in other words, is an exercise in outsourcing the very things that define our humanity. First it was work, then (with computers) intelligence, then (with Google) memory. That’s all ironic enough, given the job situation. Pretty soon the ranks of service-bots, and toy-bots can expect to be augmented by pudgy banker-bots, broker-bots and pink-shirted CEO-bots, programmed to bray full-volume across starched white tables.

Right now, though, we’re confronting the ultimate in outsourcing. The US military has unmanned systems that include MAVs, UAVs, AUVs, as well as freethinking swarm-bots and weaponised warrior-bots. MAVs, or micro air vehicles, look like a cross between a mechanical sparrow and quidditch’s Golden Snitch, and are advertised as “unobtrusive, pervasive, lethal”.

They’re already fighting our wars. In January 2006, American unmanned combat air vehicles used 10 missiles to kill 18 villagers in Pakistan. Yet apologists insist on warrior-bots as an ethical improvement; less likely to electrify extraneous genitalia because they’ve had a bad day.

Ethicists query this. What algorithm will enable a robot to tell a wounded figure from one reaching for a grenade? Or a Falangist flag from a white one?

Scarier still, though, is whether we’re ready to outsource morality in this way. Are we really prepared, paraphrasing Hopkins, to untwist – slack they may be – these last strands of man in us? Are we ready for the new robo-detente?


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