Contributor Fleetwood Robbins is an editor, writer, and sci-fi and fantasy enthusiast.
One of the first things I learned about my host country when
I lived as an expat in Prague was that the Czech word for “worker” is
“robotnik.” It was one of the many bits of received knowledge someone looking
to integrate into the scene adopted, right alongside factoids like “the name of
the Velvet Revolution was inspired by The Velvet Underground,” and “the Slovaks
had to retrain Czech police dogs to understand Slovak commands,” which is
funny, I was told, because Czechs and Slovaks speak the same language.
Whatever the truth of these idées reçue, I found amusement in the translation of robotnik
because of my aversion to work. Being a worker at that point in my life went
hand in hand with a life of mindless repetition and drudgery—a life set on
automatic. I believed I was truly alive then, awake to all the possibilities
life afforded—cheap Czech beer chief among them. But there was also a certain
underlying fear of the life of the robotnik. Would I end up as a mere cog in
the machine, or as a tool for use in its maintenance, soulless and insensate?
There are two books I can think of immediately that delve
into the question of soul in artificial beings. The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
at least touches on this, but the French SF master Maurice G. Dantec takes it a
step further in Cosmos Incorporated—the former being
much more approachable than the latter. Bacigalupi explores serious themes and
ideas while maintaining a good handle on character and plot, where as Dantec
sometimes dwells too long in the firmament of ideas. But both offer looks into
chilling futures in which humans use artificial beings to their benefit.
That we use artificial beings is not chilling in itself. Robots
have almost always been portrayed as serving people. We employ them in
activities that most of humanity would rather not engage in, like vacuuming
scooping. In the utopian ideal that robots promise, humans are the
benevolent overlords, freed from the tedium of work to fulfill our roles as
creative beings. But with a ruling elite, the promise of a dystopian crash
exists, as well.
Take for example, the first of Azimov’s
Three Laws of Robotics, “A robot may not injure a human being, or, through
inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” It’s clear who the dominant
party is. On a subconscious level, we recognize this inequality—this disparity
in power between humans and robots—and we worry what might happen should robots
become aware of it themselves. This singularity may never occur, but some are
ready to welcome
our new robot overlords. The truth of it, though, is that we know what
happens to oppressors. We know what happens to tyrants. They are all eventually
Robopocalypse is a great, and
supremely entertaining, example of what we fear in the rise of machines.
Obviously, the Terminator movies are another look into the Frankensteinian devolution of our relationship to machines. But what
about more thought provoking work on robots and artificial intelligence? Ted
Chaing, in his characteristically masterful way, explores the ideation of robot
consciousness in The Lifecycle of Software Objects.
It’s definitely the sort of “big think” science fiction that would have
appealed to my expat self. But then again, I was probably more like Futurama’s Bender in practice.