Magazine article The Spectator

Rise of the Robots

Magazine article The Spectator

Rise of the Robots

Article excerpt

Will our love affair with robots send us the way of the dinosaurs? Bryan Appleyard thinks it might

Why do humans want to build robots? It seems, on the face of it, to be a suicidal endeavour, destroying jobs and, ultimately, rendering our species redundant as more intelligent and effective beings take over. Lacking, as we now do, an agreed metaphysical justification for human specialness -- for example, the soul -- it must only be a matter of time before we submit to the machine ascendancy.

So far, it has been a subtle, incremental process that conceals any wider significance. Take satellite navigation. This was first introduced in the 1980s and is now more or less universal. Maps have become quaint. As a result, we walk or drive without a visual model of where we are. This may be a small loss of human agency but it's a loss nonetheless.

Driverless cars may turn out to be a less subtle, more spectacular example. The UK has permitted road testing, as have many American states. All the big car-makers and some big tech companies have plans to get us away from the steering wheel within the next few years. The arguments in favour are potent -- greater safety, less congestion, freedom for the young, the elderly and the disabled. The arguments against are threadbare in comparison -- loss of pleasure and control and a certain queasy sense that something is wrong here.

Queasy, however, becomes something more substantial when we are confronted by robots designed to look like humans. Here we are confounded by the uncanny. The human appearance evokes emotional responses -- concern, anger, empathy, lust, love -- that are simultaneously negated by the knowledge that this is a machine. This is terrifying. We can assess most things that look like humans because they are, but how do we assess this? What might it do?

Or else it is not terrifying at all. Ben Russell points out that in Japan there is no such fear of robots. Robot carers for the old, for example, are welcomed there; here they are seen as creepy and often portrayed as such. In films and on television, the threat is clear. Is Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator going to kill me or the bad guys? What are the bots in the Channel 4 series Humans really up to? Bad robots -- except, of course, for the lovable wannabe human Data in Star Trek -- are a standard western fictional trope.

Russell is the lead curator of the Science Museum's exhibition Robots , which runs from 8 February to 3 September and then travels the world for another five years. It's a big one because, as Russell says, 'Robots are to the Science Museum what dinosaurs are to the Natural History Museum.' They pull in the crowds and they seem to be an expression of the institution's core mission. This makes sense; if human beings can construct intelligent creatures, then science can reasonably claim it has deified our species (or obliterated it).

The timing is perfect. Driverless cars signal the start of what is likely to be a decade of explosive growth in robotics. As usual, military applications are leading the way. Drones are now commonplace killers and spies and will soon be joined by pilotless planes able to dogfight and make complex tactical decisions. Fearless robot infantry will be next, as will very smart weapons that can pick their own targets.

Elsewhere, robots have been familiar in factories for years, but will they soon be ready to hit the streets, not just as cars, but as humanoid shop assistants, couriers, you name it? …

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