I, Robot, Ourselves: What Does Artificial Intelligence Tell Us About Humanity

Jul. 15, 2004
by Seth Shostak - Senior Astronomer

If you think you can beat Nature, youre not merely afflicted with hubris; your affliction could prove terminal.

Thats the message of cautionary cinema sci-fi.  This popular movie genre proclaims that mans quest to control his environment with technology is no stroll along a yellow-brick road to wondrous things, but a green-mile march to self-destruction.

The dangers of living in our own technological future comprise the leitmotiv of I, Robot, a new movie inspired by Isaac Asimovs classic story collection of the same name.  The film, which takes place in 2035, is set in downtown Chicago, a sunny version of the seething urban environment Ridley Scott created for Blade Runner.  The streets teem with humanity, yes, but there are robots everywhere.  The sophisticated cyborgs seem benign, as they collect garbage and walk dogs.  Theyre as helpful and humble as Hudson, the butler.

But homicide detective Del Spooner, played by Will Smith, is leery.  He suspects that the newest models of the apparently deferential automatons, widely used as household appliances, are beginning to chafe under their titanium collars.  The whole scene is reminiscent of imperial Rome, a city filled with slaves -- a worrisome underclass that just might decide that their lot needs improving.

Nonetheless, few share Spooners disquiet.  Robots dont feel anything; theyre not alive, hes told.  And indeed, the robots are merely lights and clockwork, right?  Just sophisticated software, controlling anthropomorphic bodies that look as if theyve been assembled from brushed metal bike parts rustled from Lance Armstrongs garage.  And if that doesnt calm your nerves, consider this: they all come with a warranty.  Theyre programmed to rigorously conform to the three robotic laws famously espoused by Asimov in his stories.  The laws boil down to this: obey humans, cause them no harm, and protect yourself insofar as this doesnt compromise your human masters.

Well, as everyone knows, softwares seldom perfect.  A technological guru for U.S. Robotics, the industrial concern cranking out these synthetic bipeds, warns of ghosts in the machine -- presumably the interaction of various hunks of code that might lead to unexpected behavior.  Behavior that might make the robots all-too-human.  Behavior that might make them break the laws.

I, Robot is more than a look at the sociology of fictional, hi-tech companions, dealing with such wrenching problems as whether androids can have emotions or a soul.  And, despite large dollops of robot combat, its more than just a futuristic action flick, too.

Thats probably because Asimov himself was less interested in the action than in concepts.  His stories were very cerebral, says Robyn Asimov, daughter of the writer.  Action wasnt his thing: ideas were.

Well, the ideas are there. Yes, the film is both engrossing and fun (Will Smith excels at delivering deadpan lines).  In addition, these are not your daddys robots, restricted to standing around uselessly and occasionally muttering Danger, Wil Robinson.  These  upgraded bots have more agility then a 12-year-old, and more energy, too (the future has clearly improved on lithium-ion batteries).  It makes for a fast-paced film.

But I, Robot delves deeper: it forces us to confront what might soon become a real scenario, rather than just a movie plot.  Theres little doubt that by the year 2035, youll be able to buy the compute power of a human brain for the price of a lunch.  Thats right: a chip with the processing power of that gray CPU in your skull will cost no more than a single bill out of the ATM machine.

Now admittedly, there are some who believe that, despite such capability, machines will never be capable of human-style intelligence.  But that suggests that there is some sort of unfathomable miracle going on between our ears.

The alternative view is that synthetic sentience -- thinking machines that can write a symphony, or turn a canvas into a beautiful masterpiece -- is not only a possible development, but one that will probably occur in this century.  Asimov wrote his robot stories in 1950.  A bare two generations later, its possible that the fiction will be superceded by fact.

If we do invent thinking machines, how will we handle their interaction with us?  Will we be able to forever cripple their initiative, with laws similar to Asimovs, in order to avoid situations in which the created turn on their creators?  Can we always pull the plug on the androids?

That may not be possible.  Another approach is to reach an accommodation with synthetic intelligence; simply shake hands and get along.  The precedent for this isnt good.  Thirty thousand years ago, there were other sentient beings on this planet: the Neanderthals, hominids with brains even larger than ours (although their intellects were inferior).  The Neanderthals couldnt compete: they evolved only slowly.  There was no way they could overtake us in the mind race. They were driven extinct.

However, artificial intelligence, unfettered by Darwinian evolution, could overtake us. So a society in which two thinking species co-exist may be a fundamentally flawed concept.

Ideas about how we treat, or will be treated by, synthetic cerebrals, is more than just grist for a film.  Its speculation for our own future.  And keep this in mind, too: what happens on our world is likely to have analogs on others.  If we find intelligence elsewhere in the Galaxy, I wouldnt be surprised if it turns out to be their robots; beings whose interests and activities may go well beyond walking pets or collecting the garbage.

I, Robot is gripping entertainment.  But it might also be a useful insight into our own future, and into other societies past.