Robotics & Humanity

Here’s an interesting article about the history of robotics, reblogged from The Conversation via scitable


The truth is no stranger than fiction when it comes to robots

Kathleen Richardson

Robots represent the cutting edge in science. For decades we have been promised a bright future in which these human-like machines will become so advanced that we won’t be able to tell the difference between them and us. But are technologists really dabbling in the unknown in their work or merely ripping a page out of their favourite sci-fi novel?

Robots existed in fiction long before science made them a reality. In the 1920s, Czech playwright Karel Čapek wanted to create a character that could reflect the dehumanisation of society, the obsession with production and the jubilant celebration of technological progress that often resulted in the horror of the battlefields.


Having already experimented with using different non-human characters like newts and salamanders to reflect on human life and existence, Čapek made “the Robot” a central character in his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). The Robot was a particular kind of “other” who looked and acted like a human being but lacked something unique – feelings. It was not the product of a mother and father but of a production line. For Čapek, it seems, the robot is an inherently political character, a revolutionary even.

Scene from

But even this was not the first time that artificial beings had been used by creative writers. The cultural narrative of creation goes back to a time when humans first began to craft objects from material things. Some of these objects were shaped to look like humans. Take the Venus figurines that date back at least 35,000 years, or dolls, which have long been more than just innocent playthings for children in some cultures. Dolls can be magical talismans and, for some, the miniature representation of the human form was a useful way to control the human adult it was supposed to represent. The particular ways in which humans are represented is culturally specific but the desire to represent is, and always has been, universal.

So what is the modern technology of robotics doing that is so different from all these fictional exercises in imitating the human form? The roboticists and technologists of today would have you believe that their work is grounded in scientific reality when they seek the next big breakthrough in artificial intelligence. Cyberneticians and futurologists make claims as if the issues they address were never before considered in human society. But they are in fact more swept up in fantasy than ever before.

All attempts to represent the human form tap into a timeless motivation to know who we are: the mystery of life, reproduction, childhood and attachments to other humans, animals and nature.

Xray delta one

What is exciting about AI and technology is that these provide new ways of representing the human form. But the debate about what that means is so confused and ridiculous at times it can leave futurologists lost in their own fantasies. In the 1960s, Marvin Minsky was so optimistic about the new field of AI, he believed that, by the end of the 20th century, machines will outsmart human beings. This is, in part, what inspired Arthur C. Clarke when he speculated about the future of intelligence in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Ray Kurzweil is another case in point. In books such as The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, Kurzweil is forever predicting that we will merge with machines and be able to upload our “complete” consciousness into machines. This idea is emerging as the next big challenge in robotics but it could equally be viewed as a basic feature of human cultural existence.

I’m “uploading” my consciousness right now into this article. A visual artist, when she paints is also “uploading” her consciousness. Consciousness is just another way of saying psychic life – the life and impulses of the individual as a member of a family and collective. Arguably, any human being that has ever created anything has transferred aspects of their consciousness to artificial materials.

The fiction is now being created by the scientists. AI roboticists are given a free reign to project any fantasy they like about their technology and how it will irrevocably change what it means to be human. We have been asking the same question since the beginning of time in different ways. The only difference now is that those building the robots and AI systems believe their work is unique rather than part of an ongoing process and also stand to acquire a lot of money in the process.


I find it fascinating that the concept of robots arose out of the traumatic experience of battlefield technology in World War I, and in this regard there is a parallel with Lord of the Rings, which also drew on the horrors of that war for its grotesque, senseless violence. Like fire, technology is a wonderful slave, but a lousy master. And for Čapek, seeing technology so grossly abused in The Great War raised the question of “What next?” Could machines one day mimic and replicate humans, eventually replacing them? And that’s been a common theme in science fiction ever since.

7 thoughts on “Robotics & Humanity

  1. To me, the earliest robot in history—if we define “robot” as a non-biological creature that does a human’s biding and may resemble it in overall shape and form, but never in feeling—is the Golem. I wouldn’t consider statues or dolls to be precursors of robots.

    I must say I have a different understanding of “uploading” one’s consciousness. The modern concept of uploading one’s consciousness into another receptacle than our body means that we will be conscious and self-aware when we get there, that we will inhabit a different body—a non-biological one—and thus have a wholly new experience of existence. Creating art, creating technology, or storing our ideas & perspectives in written form (be it on paper or an electronic medium like this comment) is not the same thing as uploading ourselves into an artificial body. We are creating representations of our perspective through the creation of art, technology or whatever, which are separate from us and are different entities (I am not my painting, even if it represents my vision of life); we are not inhabiting the result however, which would be the case if we uploaded our consciousness into a computer, according to the transhumanist definition of that [still impossible] process.

    Also, I see a distinction between a robot (a machine intended to perform a task for a human) and an android (a machine intended to resemble or even surpass a human through advanced artificial intelligence). Robots are tools, they build cars for us and load airplanes, or aid in complex surgeries. Androids.resemble us, and their sole purpose is the testing of our abilities to create intelligence and consciousness with inanimate matter, and to thus fundamentally understand how our own intelligence and consciousness truly work. They’re the best way for us to understand what consciousness is, at least in my opinion. If anything, we humans learn by studying something and then trying to reproduce it, improve it and ultimately top it. The same goes for our own mind.

    The best tool we’ve ever had since we started walking the Earth, is technology. So it’s no wonder for me that we’re using technology to understand ourselves, and that the people who shape our current and future understanding of ourselves are engineers and scientists.

    And hopefully, bold science-fiction writers. 😉

    • Hey, that’s pretty cool about Golem, did not know that… I was fascinated by RUR, and its association with WWI. Certainly, those German machine gunners with their gas masks look like a forerunner of Arnold as the Terminator; cold and impersonal.

      I get where the author is coming from when she speaks of uploaded consciousness as having multiple forms (and lacking personal conscious presence). I’m sceptical about the whole android/robot singularity thing because of the Continuity Problem that exists for both the singularity and teleportation. Spock beams down to a planet and becomes Spock2. As far as everyone else is concerned Spock2 is Spock. As far as Spock2 is concerned, Spock2 is Spock, but no one can really know whether the actual Spock ceased to exist in the transporter room.

      I have heard of a plausible work-around to the Continuity Problem, and that’s based on the brain having two hemispheres. If a third, artificial hemisphere could be introduced to enhance the mind, then there could be a slow, verifiable way of migrating to the artificial hemisphere if you could observe how consciousness persists when the natural brain shut down for the night. This hybrid approach just might work, although I wouldn’t want to be the test pilot 🙂

  2. Fascinating article.

    It’s interesting to look at how different cultures approach robot development. In the western world, robots are industrial tools (mostly), and even androids aren’t expected to have more than a passing resemblance to human form. As long as they can get the specified job done, that’s about all that matters.

    But in Japan, they recognize that their aging population won’t have enough young workers to take care of people when they reach their declining years. So they’re developing robots to be nursemaids, therapists, and guardians for the elderly. They give them benevolent features and melodious voices that encourage trust and bonding.

    So in Japan, the elderly will have robots that will be their friends and read to them in addition to providing comprehensive nursing assistance. Here in the United States, we’ll have assembly-line welding robots that have been reprogrammed to change out our bedpans.

    Oh, well. As long as my bedpan-changing robot has racing stripes, I’ll be a happy old man, I guess.

      • The uncanny valley is definitely real. Not everybody experiences it, perhaps, but enough people do that it’s definitely a thing.

        So I’ll pick on the Japanese again. Why do they build so many robot babies? And I don’t mean baby robots that are cute and little, but robots (some absolutely huge) that resemble human babies. Not one I’ve seen has made it to the other side of the uncanny valley, and they end up looking like creepy, soul-stealing, angry monster babies that can’t do anything worthwhile. I’m told they’re products of research exploring the nature of bonding between man and machine, but I suspect a more nefarious purpose. They even have cell phones made in the shape of a tiny person and covered in malleable silicone blubber to make it feel “[as] if the person you’re talking to is right there with you.” In your hand. Sticking his tiny head in your ear.

        It’s as if the person over there in charge of robot design keeps yelling, “NOT CREEPY ENOUGH! NEED MORE CREEPY!”

        I’m glad that here in the ‘States, we realize that robots don’t need jiggling silicone baby blubber to be appealing. Again, just paint on a pair of racing stripes, maybe apply a flame decal, and boom – you got yourself a mega-appealing robot.

        I know, that’s the lazy way out. How will be ever cross the uncanny valley if we don’t even try? Still, which gives you a better return on your investment, racing stripes, or millions of dollars spent on developing robots that look like demon-possessed babies?

  3. Robots existed in fiction long before science made them a reality. In the 1920s, Czech playwright Karel Čapek wanted to create a character that could reflect the dehumanisation of society, the obsession with production and the jubilant celebration of technological progress that often resulted in the horror of the battlefields.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s