Fierce Anticipation: May 21-25 (Robot Edition)


a blogumn by Ryan Dixon


Photo by Ariel Boston
Photo by Ariel Boston

I awoke with tears in my eyes. Being only eight years old, it was the first time I had ever had a dream emotionally powerful enough to make me cry. It was a dream that not only provided me with a sense of what true happiness could be, but also what abject loss felt like. I had been in love. With a robot.

And what a robot she was. Tall, sleek, silver and shiny. Thick, long and dark flowing hair made from coaxial cables. Her humanoid features a perfect synthesis of the two female fantasy objects of my adolescence: Helen Mirren in Excalibur and Lea Thompson in Howard the Duck.

In the dream I was the captain of a starship, but a broken arm had forced me into several weeks of house rest. The robot had come to clean my house, but the instant she entered a spark — not of the electrical kind, but one of the heart — lit up between us. It was love.

Despite the fact that humans and robots were not allowed to date in my dream world, for the next several weeks she continued to arrive and we lived a life of covert romantic bliss, which led to a hushed marriage ceremony in a blue school bus driven by my dog.

For the briefest of moments, the two of us thought we could actually have a normal life together. But then, the dark shadow of tragedy entered stage left.

Three government inspectors who looked like Boba Fett (except for the fact that they carried broad swords, not laser guns) broke into my house and caught us in a kiss. They arrested her and revealed that she was to be sent immediately to a junkyard where her robot brain would be removed and all memories erased. Then, a giant robot smashing machine, described by the government inspectors as looking like a cross between a Tonka truck and a snapping turtle, would break her into a thousand pieces and all of her parts would be sold for scrap.

As she was dragged out of the house, her metallic arm waved goodbye and the oily tears that rolled down her cheek slowly morphed into the real tears that fell from my face as I awoke, moistening my Masters of the Universe bed sheets.

In the ensuing years, I have found many works of fiction in various mediums that have embraced robots* (Johnny Five and the “Happy Birthday Paulie” robot in Rocky IV chief among them), but usually their presence in movies and novels is, sadly, a harbinger of doom, foreshadowing the enslavement and/or destruction of humanity.

I can’t help but wonder if that single dream all those years ago made me more wary of the oft-stated argument that innovation and technological progress is a direct cause for the diminishment of our own humanity. Since Terminator Salvation is bound to incite another round of anti-robot propaganda and vitriol, I’ve decided to provide you with a few reasons as to why you should love the robot revolution after jump:



Upon the announcement of seemingly every new technological breakthrough, I find myself in the presence of well-meaning, but ill-informed artists who claim that this new tweeting-texting-video gaming-chatting-automating-cloning-technology will surely suck away at our humanity with the same ferocity that Bubba Ho-Tep used in slurping the souls from the asses of all those old geezers.

It is at this point that I’m always forced to bring up the fact that novels were once considered an unhealthy influence on young women in the 19th Century. Then experts claimed that reading too much caused those afflicted to spend unhealthy amounts of time in a fantasy world (for immersive danger Grand Theft Auto had nothing on Middlemarch). If they’re still not convinced, I politely remind them that in and around the year 2000 they were still refusing to use their credit cards for internet purchases until the everyday low prices of online porn turned them into true believers.

The priests, prophets, yogis, hippies and always-annoying hipsters have it all wrong: technology will lead to transcendence.

robotmoravecAnd at the forefront of this movement is Hans Moravec, a pioneering roboticist at Carnegie Mellon University. Moravec’s uses his research and the books he writes such as Mind Children to argue that when fully intelligent robots arrive (his guess is by 2050), it won’t be long after that these robots will function on such a complex computing level that they will out-people people and humanity as we know it will become obsolete.

Moravec and scientists like him look upon their predictions (and the work that they put in to make it happen) without the moral ambiguity one would imagine. They instead focus on the opportunity to create a mechanized Utopia.  When giving these pronouncements, Moravec does so not with a dour eschatological frown, but with the wide-eyed awe and ecstatic smile usually reserved for an Evangelical Christian discovering that God has granted him the miracle of getting through rush hour traffic without hitting a red light.

As Moravec likes to point out, human beings are the Ford Pinto’s of nature. We are built with many biological “mistakes” such as very limited mind power, reflexes, and multi-tasking ability. When the robots finally figure it out, would it be such a bad thing for them to take over? At least then we know the planes would run on time. Remember, the dinosaurs were also a successful species once, but even their reign had to end.


Robots in Love

If Moravec is correct and robots gain sentience by 2050, one can only assume that in due time, they will be able to replicate human emotion. Karel Capek’s 1921 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots)– which first coined the term robot– provides us with such a vision of how, as musical star Michael Ball is so fond of singing, “Love Changes Everything.” Even for robots.

Noted theatrical scholar Brian Johnston argues that R.U.R. was written in part as a reaction to the dehumanizing horrors of the First World War and of modern capitalism. Society was not only experiencing for the first time assembly lines, mass produced automobiles, commercial flights, radio, advances in medicine, all kinds of electrical gadgets, telephone networks – things that were transforming the life of the ordinary citizen of the Western world beyond anything ever seen before – but also new political dangers: Hitler rallies, communist control, European imperialism, civil wars, mass recruitment into armies through a military draft, factories organized around inhuman efficiency. In many ways, this period parallels our own time.

rossums-universal-robotsAs the final act of the play opens, Alquist is the last human survivor of a bloody robot revolution. He is now the slave of the Robots who demand he recreate the formula to build more of their kind, which was destroyed during the revolution. Since he’s not a scientist the secret eludes him until he realizes the answer is the willingness of a robot to die for another – human love. With this knowledge, he manipulates the two major robot characters, Primus and Helena into wanting to die for each other. Afterward, a puppy licks Helena’s hand. Since dogs previously had rejected the robots for being unable to bear young, this act suggests that Helana and Primus (i.e. First) have become a new Adam and Eve. Even though humanity has been driven into extinction, the play ends on a hopeful note hinting that this potential new species is a synthesis of the best traits of the soon to be obsolete robots and of the now extinct human race, whose humanity will live on forever, even if it’s only in a line of code.


The Year 1999

matrix_5Can we still talk about The Matrix? While I understand that writing about this film in 2009 has all the contemporary relevance of a million dollar Beanie Baby collection, for the sake of the argument I’m going to ask you to step back in time and concentrate not on Reloaded and Revolutions, with their horrid dreadlocked albinos and freshman year comparative philosophy “dramatic” monologues that would make even Noam Chomsky fall asleep, but on the original film. Since it “borrowed” a little something from nearly every dark-edged work focusing on the Cybernetic Revolt, the original film can be used as a sort of Dystopian Cliff notes.

As a variation on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, The Matrix presents us with a world where humans are essentially plugged into a giant computer, living forever in a virtual 1999. And, like in Plato’s work, The Matrix argues that no matter how comfortable artificial reality can be, the natural instinct is for humans is to break free of any bonds of artificiality and enter into the real world no matter how terrible it may be.

Of course, the problem with this thesis is that, more often than not, the creators of these works cheat. If the computers and robots were sentient enough to build such an amazing contraption, wouldn’t they have the forethought to place humanity within a simulation more like an infinite, all-expenses paid Carnival cruise as opposed to a world where the Backstreet Boys’ Millennium will forever be the biggest selling album of the year?

I’m sorry, but if losing the eventual war against the machines means living in a virtual world where I could finally be reunited with my long lost robot lover, I say bring on the Robots!


*I use “robots” to mean every form of mechanical humanoid; androids, cyborgs, etc…