Robots: Three Fantasies and One Big Cold Reality
The traditional encounter with the alien has been in one of two traditional forms -- either Earth explorers go off-planet and meet another intelligent species, or members of another intelligent species step out of their ships to call on us here. Either way, we are meeting something totally new -- like Europeans discovering the New World, only much more so. Two species meet as strangers. The meeting is going to start in wonder, and it may end in war, or discipleship, or the pan-galactic union.
There is also a third form of the encounter. Here the alien is not something, or rather someone, whose past is wholly separate from ours, is not a stranger, but is rather our own creation. It only got to be alien in the way that some children, as they grow up, prove to be quite different from their parents, different in tastes, needs, and kind of intelligence, yet still bearing the marks of having been raised by those parents. There are magical forms of this third encounter: golems, living bronze statues in ancient Crete, and so forth. But, obviously, the main form of it has been achieved through science and the robot.
I want to discuss three of the many ways that science fiction has imagined the robot and then turn to those interesting machines, real robots. They have this much in common at least with their fictional forebears. They really are emerging as the first other intelligent species we human beings have encountered. There will soon be some striking consequences of that encounter. Before I begin, though, I should note that the original robots that robots are named for -- the ones in Karel Capek's R. U. R. -- are by my definition not robots at all. They are the results of biological engineering. Dr. Rossum, a biological genius, developed a whole new form of protoplasm and with it