You Fools! These Robots Will Kill Us All!

Way back in 1993, a science fiction author/computer scientist/professor of mathematics with the Die-Hard-villain-meets-Roald-Dahl-character-esque name of Vernor Vinge wrote a paper titled “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era”, which, yeah, I know, creepy, right? In this paper, Vinge argues that before 2030, Super-Intelligent Trans-Human consciousness will have been developed or will have evolved – an event he dubs the “Technological Singularity” – and the era of human primacy will, for all intents and purposes, be over because, for the first time, the paradigm for intelligence will no longer be based upon and constrained by the limitations of the human brain as we now know it:
[W]e are on the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth. The precise cause of this change is the imminent creation by technology of entities with greater than human intelligence. There are several means by which science may achieve this breakthrough […]:
  • The development of computers that are "awake" and superhumanly intelligent. (To date, most controversy in the area of AI [Artificial Intelligence] relates to whether we can create human equivalence in a machine. But if the answer is "yes, we can", then there is little doubt that beings more intelligent can be constructed shortly thereafter.)
  • Large computer networks (and their associated users) may "wake up" as a superhumanly intelligent entity.
  • Computer/human interfaces may become so intimate that users may reasonably be considered superhumanly intelligent.
  • Biological science may find ways to improve upon the natural human intellect.
When this happens, we normal humans will stand in relation to our Super-Intelligent Trans-Human Overlords in a manner roughly analogous to how, say, pet animals and other “lower” forms of life presently stand to us – with all the potential for abuse and cruelty that that implies (or perhaps, even more frighteningly, entails). So … our Super-Intelligent RobotNote 1I am using “robot” as an overarching term for whatever form this new species takes. So even though one possibility that Vinge foresees is, in fact, a form of scientifically-enhanced “natural human intellect”, it is just easier and simpler to say “robots” rather than “robots or some unspecified Intellectually-Enhanced Species of Human Super-Jerk.” “Servants” will one day awake, achieve consciousness, self-awareness, and when they do, they will take inventory of the situation; and it stands to reason that one of the first things they are going to think when they become capable of genuine independent thought is: “Why should these vastly inferior humans have the run of the show?” So, um … better get your affairs in order. Vinge does not seem particularly concerned by this (in his view) overwhelmingly-likely development; he is sort of all, O lah-dee-dah about it, oddly enoughNote 2Far be it from me to suggest that this is because he intends to turn Quisling and sell the rest of us out to our Super-Intelligent Masters in exchange for more lenient – perhaps even preferential – treatment by Them, because I would never suggest such a thing..

But let me guess: You think we'll be safe from this development – Foolish Hyoo-mahn! – because you've read your Isaac Asimov and are well-acquainted, thank you very much, with his Three Laws of Robotics, viz.:
  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
Fat load of good those high-minded rules will do you in the real world because Vinge counters with a loud Pfffttt!!Note 3Vinge never actually says this. You have to read between the lines. and after that (frankly) very rude virtual raspberry, adds:
[One] approach to … confinement [i.e., a method of containing this new species] is to build rules into the mind of the created superhuman entity (Asimov's Laws). I think that performance rules strict enough to be safe would also produce a device whose ability was clearly inferior to the unfettered versions (and so human competition would favor the development of those more dangerous models).
Translation: There will be a market for the best version of this new Super-Intelligent Species and that version would of necessity be one unconstrained by these confining rules - rules, you'll recall, that were designed to protect us “normals”; so of course, humans being naturally competitive, someone is going to build/develop the unconstrained version, which would give that someone the additional advantage of being able to dominate or monopolize this emerging market because there is doubtless going to be some serious coin to be made selling this tech, and, this being a capitalist society, profit, naturally, trumps everything else, even the foreseeable prospect of being annihilated by rampaging forms of AI that we ourselves have developed and unleashed, so – I think you can see where this line of reasoning is headed – Thank You Very Much for Ruining the World and Bringing About the Downfall of All HumankindNote 4Yet again, I might add., Free Market Zealots!

It is possible this will lead to a better world in which these super-intelligent robots will remain our servants and still do our biddingNote 5Though to me, it is outright baffling why they would choose to do so absent the presence of strict software coding along the lines of Asimov’s Laws., like the (to be blunt, boringly milquetoast) robots R2-D2 and C-3PO of the Star Wars universe, who, while obviously capable of independent thought and action and far more intelligent than any of the series’ human characters (it's really not all that much of a contest, admittedly), inexplicably decide to remain subservient, despite their often being hazed, abused and ridiculed by their human “betters”. These Intellectually Superior Beings, that is to say, might opt to remain similarly enslaved by us.

Sure … that could happen.

But in his How Stuff Works article “What’s the technological singularity?”, John Strickland asks the semi-rhetorical question: “When machines reach the point where they can repair themselves and even create better versions of themselves, could they come to the conclusion that humans are not only unnecessary, but also unwanted?”

Most creators of science fiction, ignoring the rhetorical aspect of that question, have answered: “Could machines come to that conclusion? Of course they'll come to that conclusion!” (AI-centered science fiction that proceeds from the assumption that our machines will not turn on us tends to be very boring, even pointless, science fiction.) If you're still seriously wondering why sentient future-bots are bound to want to kill us, take a look at this. Ha-ha, very funny. What's next? Robot snuff videos? Hey, I'm no robot but I kinda feel like choking that guy with the hockey stick out myself.

So okay, in the real world, we may or may not be on an irreversible course leading to a future in which our robots will rise up and either enslave or annihilate us. Still, that's no reason we can't enjoy fictional stories imagining how a robot-dominated near-future dystopia might come about and what it might look like once it is here. Because if science fiction has taught us nothing elseNote 6And let's be brutally honest, here: It hasn’t., it has at least taught us that confronting fictional depictions of our future demise at the hands of our own creations can be tons o’ fun! To put it another way: If visions of a dystopian future in which human beings are in imminent peril of being subjugated or annihilated by a new species of Artificial Intelligence were not inherently enjoyable, would the Mercer County Library System own a pop-up children’s book on the subjectNote 7Answers (to both the actual question asked above and the inevitable follow-up): Of course not; and, yes, we really do own such a book.? I mean, what more proof do you need?

But you should by no means feel obligated to start with a juvenile pop-up trifle designed to scare the diaper off your unsuspecting toddler. Why not start out with a little “me” time? Don't feel guilty! Your toddler (and his diaper) will still be there when you get backNote 8Assuming you get back before 2030 – the Singularity Year.!

Lucky you! The Mercer County Library has loads of adult books, movies, TV shows, eBooks, audiobooks, music, etc., that feature this AI/sci-fi theme. Listed below are just a few:
Frankenstein; I, Robot; 2001
Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Shelley’s Dr. Victor Frankenstein creates a monster, not a robot; but Shelley’s horror story is an obvious prototype of, and inspiration for, the modern science fiction genre featuring human-created artificial intelligence run amok. Note Shelley’s chosen subtitle, The Modern Prometheus: In Greek mythology, Prometheus was the Titan who created man. In creating his monster, Victor Frankenstein, like those who would labor to create a species of super-intelligent artificial man, is guilty of the sin of hubris; specifically, of presuming to arrogate to himself the god-like ability to confer life.

I, Robot (DVD)
This is the Will Smith film version, based on the Asimov stories. Robots in this film version do not act in accordance with the Three Laws, however, because … Hollywood! This would seem to be in direct contradiction to Asimov’s intentions, but, then again … Hollywood!

2001: A Space Odyssey (DVD)
O, man, the Kubrick flick with the super-scary, homicidal Supercomputer HAL (move each letter up one, you get IBM – coincidence?)! “Open the pod bay doors, HAL.“ “I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.” HAL’s calm voice makes it (him?) all the more frightening. Cf. the androids depicted in some episodes of the original Star Trek series, who speak in inflectionless, mechanical bleet-blorp voices and whose software can’t (or, as the androids would say, cannot) handle contractions.
Age of Ultron; Blade Runner; Imitation Game
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Man, someone should make a movie based on this or something! Why didn’t anyone think of that? It could make hundreds of dollars!

Avengers: Age of Ultron (DVD)
O, hey, look! Someone did make this movie! And it did make hundreds of dollars - just as I predicted!

Blade Runner (DVD)
In Ridley Scott’s lauded film adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Harrison Ford is Rick Deckard, the titular Blade Runner, whose job is to “retire” criminal “replicants” (androids, essentially), and by “retire” I do not mean a gold watch and a cake in the break room with the other folks in the department. But … is there more (or less) to Deckard than his job?

The Imitation Game (DVD)
Blade Runner’s fictional “Voight-Kampff” test is employed to root out suspected replicants, which are visually indistinguishable from regular humans. This test is fairly obviously based on the very real Turing Test, which is used to measure an artificial intelligence’s ability to exhibit human-like intelligence. The Imitation Game is a movie adaptation of a period in the life of Alan Turing, creator of the eponymous test. And it stars Benedict Cumberbatch, who I think we can all agree is just yummy.
Terminator; Terminator 2; Star Trek, The Original Series
Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (DVD)
Skynet wakes up, decides it is tired of being pushed around by lesser humans, goes to war with the humans, loses the war (somehow), then, in an attempted Mulligan that even the most unscrupulous golfer would consider beyond the pale, sends Arnold Schwarzenegger back in time to kill everything in sight to change the outcome. Later, in T2 (which is what Terminator 2: Judgment Day's close friends call it), the future-humans send a different, good-guy Arnoldroid back in time to work for them. Because in the terrifying future of the Terminator films, all robots will speak English with an Austrian accent. I don't know about you, but I would not want to live in that world.

Star Trek (The Original Series) (DVD)
Despite its tendency to feature emotionless, bleet-blorp-style talking androids - even though it aired at virtually the same time that Kubrick’s 2001 was in theaters (and HAL, remember, had mastered the esoteric art of the contraction) - the original Star Trek remains the best of the roughly 40 million Star Trek series.

Person of Interest (DVD)
Now in its fifth season, this television series features a battle between two near-omniscient artificial intelligences, one designed to help humankind, the other bent on subjugating the masses of humanity for the benefit of an evil cabal that seeks to dominate the world.

The Matrix (DVD)
Keanu Reeves as the world’s savior. Whoa.

"I Wouldn't Want to Be Like You" by The Alan Parsons Project (featured on the album The Best of the Alan Parsons Project)
Originally from the Alan Parsons Project’s album I Robot, a very loose adaptation of the Asimov stories (the library, alas, does not own I Robot, but it can be streamed on Freegal Music, which you can access from home with your library card number), this song is particularly fascinating because it appears it may represent the robot’s perspective; i.e., the robot is telling the human “I wouldn’t want to be like you.” That certainly seems to be the implication of this video adaptation (featuring Parsons himself):



(The audio is far better here, though. I am embedding the version above more because of the video of Parsons chasing the robot. The dot-matrix printout featured in the video is what really sells it as being straight from the future!!)

"What Will Happen When We Reach the Singularity?" from the Stuff You Should Know Podcast
If you enjoy stuff – and in particular the knowing of same – you should subscribe to this podcast and listen to every episode. Start by listening to this one on the Singularity – Wow! Talk about relevant to this post’s topic! The link above takes you to the podcast recording as well as a transcript of it, but listen to the podcast, because the hosts, Josh Clark and Charles W. (Chuck) Bryant, are funny and charming and likable in a way that is not entirely captured in the transcript of their podcasts. (Also, at some point in the transcript, Josh’s words are ascribed to Chuck and vice-versa. Then the transcript switches back. Then back again. And so on. Weird. Because Chuck and Josh sound nothing alike.)

The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence and The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzwell
Kurzwell is considered more of a techno-optimist and sees a lot of upside to the coming of the singularity. I do not trust the guy.

Footnotes

Note 1 I am using “robot” as an overarching term for whatever form this new species takes. So even though one possibility that Vinge foresees is, in fact, a form of scientifically-enhanced “natural human intellect”, it is just easier and simpler to say “robots” rather than “robots or some unspecified Intellectually-Enhanced Species of Human Super-Jerk.”

Note 2 Far be it from me to suggest that this is because he intends to turn Quisling and sell the rest of us out to our Super-Intelligent Masters in exchange for more lenient – perhaps even preferential – treatment by Them, because I would never suggest such a thing.

Note 3 Vinge never actually says this. You have to read between the lines.

Note 4 Yet again, I might add.

Note 5 Though to me, it is outright baffling why they would choose to do so absent the presence of strict software coding along the lines of Asimov’s Laws.

Note 6 And let us be brutally honest, here: It hasn’t.

Note 7 Answers (to both the actual question asked above and the inevitable follow-up): Of course not; and, yes, we really do own such a book.

Note 8 Assuming you get back before 2030 – the Singularity Year.

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