Dreaming of Electric Sheep

By Johnson, Steven | The Nation, September 3, 2001 | Go to article overview
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Dreaming of Electric Sheep

Johnson, Steven, The Nation

Ever doubt that you are living in the twenty-first century? Here's a sure-fire cure: Pay a visit to the website for the Society of Robotic Combat, where you'll encounter the following, utterly earnest, mission statement: "The Society of Robotic Combat seeks to serve the competition robot community in two ways. First, we will represent the builders by creating and maintaining an equitable rule set for robot competitions. Next we will strive to assemble and disseminate the premier knowledge base for the practical construction and operation of competitive robots."

You may well be surprised to learn that there is such a thing as "robot competition"--and perhaps even more surprised to find that these competitions have advanced far enough to require a governing body and "equitable rule sets." Indeed, you can see those rules in action weeknights on Comedy Central, which has just begun showing new episodes of its cult hit BattleBots--a kind of QVC-meets-Gladiator hybrid where the viewer is introduced to a parade of elaborate mechanical devices with names like Killerhurtz and Spike, which then proceed to bludgeon one another into oblivion in a Plexiglas-encased coliseum, while screaming fans cheer them on.

BattleBots and the Society of Robotic Combat might look at first glance like they just dropped out of a Philip K. Dick novel, particularly if your previous notion of mechanized sporting was Casey Martin's golf cart. But the competitive robots of BattleBots--or Europe's insanely popular series Robot Wars--aren't quite as advanced as you might initially think. The first time I tuned into BattleBots, I sat entranced for ten minutes as the two machines engaged in what seemed like a remarkably sophisticated dance for a pair of glorified lawnmowers. I thought to myself, When did the robots get this smart? And then the screen cut to the sidelines, where their human owners furiously manipulated their remote-control devices. Killerhurtz and Spike might have been robotic gladiators, but they were worse than slaves of their human masters--they were closer to high-tech puppets.

But hey, it's only 2001. By 2005, we'll be watching autonomous, semi-intelligent machines dueling one another without the remote-control devices, and before long one of those machines will spontaneously generate its own rope-a-dope strategy, or perhaps even thrust a Black Power fist into the sky, and it will become our first real cyborg hero. How long, then, until that machine's achievements start to be recorded by the sports pages, alongside the nonhuman athletes of the Belmont Stakes and the Indy 500? And if that machine should pass convincingly into the realm of human sport, how long until its growing intelligence starts to become a threat to its creators?

That is the question that hangs over the middle section of AI, Steven Spielberg's erratic and commercially unsuccessful collaboration with the late Stanley Kubrick. Set several hundred years in the future, in a world populated by intelligent, adaptive mechanical life forms called Mecha, the film begins with the creation of a Mecha child--played by the sublime Haley Joel Osment--capable of feeling love for an adopted human mother. A young couple, whose first son lies trapped in a comalike state of suspended animation because of some unnamed illness, takes the roboboy David home, and slowly a bond develops between mother and adopted son--until the real son wakes from his coma and returns home to torture his new kid brother. Before long, David has been exiled from his human family and left to wander the earth like a cyborg Ronin.

"I'm sorry I didn't teach you more about the world," his mother sobs before abandoning him in the obligatory fog-shrouded pine forest. She's got a good reason to be sorry--the world turns out to harbor a growing subculture of anti-Mecha fury, localized around traveling Flesh Fairs, during which "unlicensed"--but still functioning--old robots are dismembered, disemboweled and burned with a spectacular violence that brings to mind the opening pages of Discipline and Punish.

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