Friday, May 15, 2015

Movie Robots and Us

Very interesting essay by Daniel Mendelsohn on recent robot films and what they say about our hopes and fears:
 Ex Machina, like Her and all their predecessors going back to 2001, is about machines that develop human qualities: emotions, sneakiness, a higher consciousness, the ability to love, and so forth. But by this point you have to wonder whether that’s a kind of narrative reaction formation—whether the real concern, one that’s been growing in the four decades since the advent of the personal computer, is that we are the ones who have undergone an evolutionary change, that in our lives and, more and more, in our art, we’re in danger of losing our humanity, of becoming indistinguishable from our gadgets.


G. Verloren said...


Robots are industrial machines. They do not feel. But they can be designed to trick us into thinking they do.

They can be made with the intent of manipulating our emotions and our thoughts. They can be programmed to prey upon our instincts, to control and influence us in ways we are not aware of. And that's a frightening and dangerous concept.

Anthroform robots are, by design, objects of deception and deceit. There is no real reason to give a robot a a human shape, in terms of mechanical advantage. They're meant to perform tasks that are either difficult or dangerous for actual people to perform. The human form is amazingly suboptimal for the sorts of tasks robots chiefly carry out. The sole and utter reason to make a robot look like a human is to influence human behavior by tapping into our instincts.

The problem is that we treat people very differently than we treat industrial machines. We will without thinking keep a cautious distance from something like a robotic arm on an assembly line, for fear of the obvious mechanical strength on display. If you get in the way of a rapidly moving piece of metal, it's going to hurt.

But stick the same mechanical power in a human form, and people don't see the raw force beneath the surface. They see a "human", and they consequently associate what they're looking at with human limitations. They don't see a powerful mechanical arm that can easily crush bones, they see a far less powerful human arm instead.

The illusion is further reinforced by robots mimicking human behaviors. A robot that "smiles" makes us attribute a whole slew of qualities to it. We automatically respond to the visual cue and treat the machine as "happy" or "nice" or "sincere" or "pleasant", when of course it cannot be any of those things. It is only a machine, and it can only operate as programmed. And that's where the danger factor comes in.

Most depictions of robots are in fact depictions of Artificial Intelligence. Thankfully, actual AI is effectively a non-issue for the forseeable future - and hopefully forever, considering the incredible moral, philosophical, and practical difficulties that would accompany our artificial creation of sapient life on par with ourselves.

Yet, in the absence of AI, we're left with the simple fact that every single robot that exists is an extension of the will and desires of its creators and programmers. And that is where having machines that look like humans gets terrifying.

G. Verloren said...


Actual humans have inherent restrictions not only on their physical beings, but also on their mentalities. People operate off of shared cultural values, as well as deeply ingrained instincts. No matter who you are and where you come from, there are certain things other people can always tell about you with overwhelming accuracy. Aside from rare extreme cases, people are very predictable in their behaviors. But robots are not. They can be programmed to change their behaviors instantly, in ways that do not conform to cultural or instinctual limitations.

Picture a crying child alone in a crowded place. Almost universally you will have people respond predictably to that - approaching the child, trying to comfort them, trying to find out where their parents or guardians are.

Now imagine the child is secretly a robot. It has been programmed to mimick a crying child, to produce that exact concerned response in passerby. But unlike a scared, sobbing child who lacks perfect self control, the machine can instantly alter that behavior. Once it lures someone it, it can change to a completely unpredicted behavior, determined entirely by the person who programs the machine.

Maybe the programmer is an artist - they have the robot suddenly stop crying and do something unexpected toward the person who stopped to help the "child", as a form of street performance or artistic statement.

Or maybe the robot is actually some corporation's marketing gimmick - passerby approach, then it switches over to Sales Pitch Mode, espousing the benefits of their products, or glibly spouting targeted buzzphrases and annoying jingles.

Or maybe the programmer is a thief - they have the "child" draw people close enough to steal their wallets, or read the RFIDs in their credit cards, et cetera.

Or perhaps the robot is part of a con game - a perfect accomplice, who can tell perfect lies, showing perfect emotions, and win the trust of unsuspecting marks.

Or what if the programmer is more malicious, crossing over into the realm of violence? A psychopath installs a concealed blade or a firearm - or perhaps just an overpowered robotic hand and arm - into the structure of the robot. It lures someone close, strikes without warning, then flees the scene with inhuman speed, precision, power, and agility - perhaps killing even more people along the way.

Or a political extremist packs their crying robot full of high explosives and shrapnel - the perfect "suicide bomber", unafraid, unquestioning, unbetrayed by suspicious emotional cues, unsuspected by an entire crowd a victims duped into trying to help a poor lost "child".

Robots that look like humans are inherently deceptive and inherently dangerous. They are industrial machines created by humans to prey upon the failings of other humans.

They are not people, and they do not feel. And yet they trick us into thinking they are and they do. And that leaves us vulnerable to being attacked by the unscrupulous and the deranged who might end up in control of them.