technology intent on colonizing ours—
think the Marvel franchise, Daleks,
or the Transformers. But the genesis
of our downfall was always going to be
ourselves: For centuries people have
been attempting to create automatons.
One of the most famous
examples of the fascination with
creating new forms of sentient,
autonomous life is Mary Shelley’s
Frankenstein. The story illustrates
what happens to creations that
people don’t understand, that they
distrust, or that frighten them. For
Frankenstein’s monster, then, instead
of acceptance, the response to this
new life form was violently negative.
So perhaps the current darkness
descending on the digital, as people
worry about AI and big data, is the
first sign of us taking up pitchforks
and torches to chase out a technology
we have created.
While we are thinking about creations
and creators, let’s consider two other
“creation” stories to help us think
about our AI and robotic destiny. Turn
first to Greek mythology and to the
demigod Prometheus. Picture him tied
to a mountaintop, receiving terrifying
punishment from the gods. Each day,
birds swoop down to pick painfully
with surgical precision at his liver, that
agony relived day after day as each
night it regrows.
What could he have done to
anger the gods so much to receive
such punishment? His sin was to
give humankind the power of fire, a
technology that enabled them to tame
nature, expand their horizons, and
create tools—and with all this, gave
them the ability to rely on themselves
rather than the gods. In a TV interview,
Stephen Fry muses whether there will
be a modern-day Prometheus who
empowers AIs to such an extent that
they no longer need us:
Will the Prometheus who makes
the first piece of really impressive
robotic AI—like Frankenstein or the
Prometheus back in the Greek myth—
have the question: Do we give it fire?…
In other words: Shall we be Zeus and
deny them fire because we are afraid
of them? Because they will destroy us?
The Greeks, and the human beings, did
destroy the gods. They no longer needed
them. And it is very possible that we will
create a race of sapient beings who will
not need us.
Now consider the biblical account
of the Garden of Eden. Adam and
Eve were created by God to live with
him in the paradise of Eden. One day,
they were tempted to eat of the tree of
knowledge of good and evil, with the
devil encouraging them, saying that
by eating its fruit they “will be like
God.” Some developers are creating
modern-day Adams and Eves, built
to dwell with us in the paradise of
our technologically advanced homes,
offices, and hospitals. But perhaps like
the first Adam and Eve, these social
robots will seek to become increasingly
like us and then leave us, focused on
their own self-determination.
CAN’T BE THIS BAD?
With this talk of the Bible and the
like you may be writing me off as a
street-corner prophet of doom, shrilly
predicting that the “end of the world is
nigh.” You might be thinking that I’m
exaggerating the concerns: Will robots
really rise up? Will they really want to
become better than us? How will they
master what we humans have taken
millennia to evolve? Will we need to
take up pitchforks and torches to chase
them out of town?
WAs we stare down into our mobile devices, are we fusing with the metallic forms of our mobiles, click
by click, only too late realizing that we
are becoming the robots?
Figure 1. Early memories of a robotic future.
Figure 2. Surely nothing to fear here? Wall-E (left) is a far cry from Frankenstein’s monster; and
robots will even soothe us to sleep (right, https://meetsomnox.com/).