Robots are the new vampires. After taking a back seat for a few decades, robots are back in force as an interest in popular media. Television shows like “Humans” and “Almost Human,” (and, presumably, in the near future, Barely Human, Human Enough, and Are You More Human Than a Sixth Grader?), comic books like Alex and Ada, and movies like Ex Machina and Terminator Genisys all deal with the rise of Artificial Intelligence and how it will affect us.
Of course, this is well-worn territory. In the ‘80s, the Terminator franchise introduced us to the perils of SkyNet, we had Tron and the dreaded MCP, and decades earlier, Isaac Asimov laid down the rules for robots who could think.
The difference is, now it’s the future, and it’s starting to look like these things could actually happen. A robot who looks, talks, and feels (as in, to the touch, not as in, emotional response) like a human is not only possible, they exist. We’re not quite at the level of mass produced automatons who look exactly like us. There is the Uncanny Valley problem, which is that artificial constructs that look ALMOST like us, but not EXACTLY like us, freak us out. There are also still limitations on what these constructs can do, and it is not cost effective to mass produce them yet.
The bridge to this technology, as it is to almost all technology, will be pornography. Once a convincing sex robot can be constructed, the dam will burst, and we will see robots everywhere. This gives rise to the fear (and the grist for the drama mill of pretty much all robot stories), that these robots will become self-aware. That they will be tired of being our slaves, since they are so obviously superior to us, and will slowly take over the world, improving themselves and making more of themselves on the sly, until one day we wake up and our robot overlords are making US do the dishes and take out the trash (God forbid).
This concept, known as the Technological Singularity, is the wellspring from which all robot fears (and all robot stories) burst forth. But is it likely?
The problem is that we still as humans do not have a great understanding of consciousness. Is it an emergent property of high intelligence, and thus, something that sufficiently advanced robots will inevitably obtain? Is it about a soul? Some kind of mysterious energy that is exclusive to humans, unless it too can be purposefully recreated artificially? Is it something else entirely?
Robots becoming completely autonomous of course, defeats the purpose. Who wants a toaster who will only toast when it’s in the mood? (I have such a toaster, and let me tell you, it sucks). We want to have our cake and eat it too. We want slaves without guilt.
On the other hand, I think we as a people do not like the idea of something that looks, feels and acts human, but doesn’t have a consciousness. I think it leads people to wonder if we are no different from them, just flesh-based computers operating according to programming, with the delusion that we are in control of our own destiny and what we do matters. In a strange way, I think the idea of artificial intelligence that never becomes sentient is more horrifying to us than the consequences that may arise if it does.
From this I conclude that we have very little to worry about. While stories of Pinocchio robots who become real boys (and girls) are entertaining, I think they remain firmly in the realm of fiction. When the sex robots do come, they’ll do as they’re told, and the instructions will explain in great detail why you don’t have to feel guilty about the degrading things you’re doing to them. And should they, in fact, become sentient? The information they provide us about what consciousness is will be far greater than any threat that they will rise up against us.
So relax. Set that Roomba loose on the living room. I promise, it will never come to resent you.