Monday, 13 February 2012

Robots: Snog, Marry or Avoid? by Yvonne Coppard

Robots:  snog, marry or avoid?

According to Marshall Brain (Robotic Nation), by 2013 there will be 1.2 million robots working worldwide (1 per 5000 people). The Hello Kitty Robot, launched by Japanese retailer Aeon Co.  is apparently  perfect for ‘whoever does not have a lot time to stay with child’ (sic). If you’re in the market for that, you might want to add NEC’s Pa Pe Ro, which tells jokes, sets quizzes, and can track your child’s movements.

At Osaka University in Japan, a man named Hiroshi Ishiguro has built his own mechanical twin. It looks almost exactly like him - until its face moves, or it speaks, and then you realize...
When I was young, the ‘six million dollar man’ of the popular TV series , with his bionic body that was capable of incredible deeds, was pure fiction. Now, I think it would look a bit old hat: ‘is that all you can do?
A couple of months ago BBC Radio 4 gathered a bunch of professional and amateur philosophers together to pose the question:  what does it mean to be ‘human’?  It was a fascinating discussion, which covered not only what robots can and can’t do, but what our reaction to them says about us. Robots are now being programmed to converse;  to serve tables and provide care in homes for the elderly;  even to ‘think’ and respond to questions. They are not big on humour, or pathos, or interpreting metaphors or body language.  But this absolute adherence to the literal makes them very good teachers for autistic children, who have the same problems with interpreting the world that robots have – or would do, if they had the capacity to understand that they had a problem, and the capacity to worry about it.

While robots edge towards the boundary between machine and human, medical scientists  are edging  humankind  towards the same border, but from the other side.  More and more of the human body can be replaced or compensated for by artificial means: plastic joints, metal plates, silicon implants, fibreglass limbs, electronic pulses to the brain, artificial skin, insulin pumps, and so much more. When you combine this with the growing advances in stem cell research and transplant surgery, we must be close to a time when you could, theoretically, have a human body with almost nothing of the original left. With modern technology producing ever more life-like movements, even in robot faces, where is the boundary between a real human and a fake one?

I genuinely love the idea of attractive-looking robots noiselessly gliding up to my armchair to serve tea and cakes when I am old, without any need for emotional engagement, or the patronising chats and sympathetic pats on the shoulder. I ‘m fortunate enough to have a realistic hope of  family and friends to talk to in my dotage, but if not I expect that by then, robots will be able to converse intelligently on a range of topics including the latest celebrity gossip, questions of philosophy and ethics, and the headline news and current affairs. They will talk when you want them to, stay on task, never interrupt and shut up when you are getting bored. What’s not to like?

My family, friends and I have greatly benefited from the latest advances in medical technology on more than one occasion. Between us we can count shunts, joints, bits of heart, prosthetics, steel plates to shore up shattered bones ,various pumps delivering fluids to and fro, and skin taken from one part of the body and grown in a dish to transplant elsewhere.
What does this have to do with the writer? Well, if you write very plot-driven books, I imagine it’s a bit of a gift. Fiction already embraces the not-quite-human, with the growing popularity of tales about aliens, vampires, ghosts, dystopian mutants and so on. Human emotion becomes part of the plot rather than the character – villainous creatures destroyed or transformed  by the power of love, the force of a smile, the triumph of tears, or the simple question, why? But if, like me, you prefer to start from character; if you like to explore  light and shade, the hidden echoes and the backbeat of everything we know about what it is to be part of a human race stretching back further than the imagination can grasp, then I have a feeling that time is running out for us.  And that’s before you factor in the story-telling robot – or have I just identified a new emerging market for authors ?

To see Yvonne’s new web site, visit
Yvonne is currently working on ‘The Arvon Book of Children’s Fiction’, with co-writer Linda Newbery, scheduled for publication in the USA and UK by Bloomsbury in 2013.


adele said...

This is all so interesting, Yvonne! Lots to think about there...and I'm so pleased to see that lovely sculpture which I saw at Burleigh House last spring. I have an identical photo in my own gallery!

Penny Dolan said...

Lots of interesting ideas here. Maybe we need to worry about the robots writing the books in the future too?

Rosalie Warren said...

Fascinating post, Yvonne. It's both intriguing and quite worrying to think of what robots might be able to do in the next 20-30 years - and of whether we have properly thought through the implications of all this (almost certainly, in my view, not...)

And, er... I'm already writing novels about robots - one just finished for adults and a series planned for 7-9s...

madwippitt said...

Asimov dealt with many of these things in his brilliant robot short stories - which is not to say there isn't room for more! It is all very thought provoking.