This is the final blog in a three-part series exploring the relationship between Science Fiction and UX. In the first episode, I compared how effectively 'Minority Report' and 'The Island' used (or didn't use) UX. In the second episode, I explored holograms and voice-activation, and touched upon the human obsession to recreate in human-form. This episode is further exploring this relationship, in the likes of robots and artificial intelligence.
A machine. A computer. It is something that performs a task of a human independently, without human oversight. It is easy to think of robots as strictly human-form, but in some of the early science fiction novels, robots took many shapes and forms – from boxes to cars. And we are surrounded by non-humanoid robots today, in the form of automated email replies and twitter bots, to the much more complex machines that have been created to do menial tasks.
Fig. 1 - Automated replies making our lives a tiny bit easier
In fact, according to the International Federation of Robotics, the world now includes 1.1 million working robots, and machines account for 80% of the work in manufacturing a car.
So how do we define it? Simply put, a robot is a series of algorithms that can perform functionality.
The world now includes 1.1 million working robots, and machines account for 80% of the work in manufacturing a car
It is when we start applying artificial intelligence to a robot that things start to get really interesting. Or perhaps the word for it is exciting, threatening, or dangerous. If a machine has enough artificial intelligence to be self aware and passes the Turing test, does it become a new species or form of life?
In effect, the question 'what is a robot?' can begin to morph into another: 'what is it to be human?'
This is a common theme that strings many science fiction stories together. It is the perfect platform to question deep and difficult moral dilemmas such as the death penalty, playing God and free will. 'Ex Machina', 'Battlestar Galactica', and 'Blade Runner' are just 3 examples of films that explore these themes.
In 'Ex Machina', Nathan's AI robot, Ava, is put to a Turing test as the entire plot of the film. If she passes, Nathan will replicate her model. If she fails, he will download her memory and use her body for parts for the next model. He's a young genius coding billionaire, who is obsessed with playing God - his fixation with Ava is to make a super-human, even smarter than himself.
As he says it, "Ava doesn't exist in isolation, any more than you or me. She's part of a continuum. Version 9.6. And each time, they get a little better."
Fig. 2 - Ava in 'Ex Machina'
But if a robot is self-aware, and possesses consciousness, whose right is it to decide if she may continue or not? She asks, "Why is it up to anyone? Do you have people who test you, and might switch you off?"
Does a human have the right to decide whether another human can live or not? Or a government? Depending on where you are in the world, you'll get a different answer to that.
'Battlestar Galactica' explores this relationship between human and robot for 6 seasons. The battle between humans and cylons (originally created by humans, these robots grew and outsmarted them) is the main conflict running through the entire series.
The cylons have the advantage of eternal life; they cannot die, merely downloading their information to a nearby base when killed, to replicate with memories and personality intact. It is only if the resurrection ship is destroyed or out of range that a cylon can be killed. However, with multiple replicas of each cylon character walking around the galaxy, it is rare that they actually die.
Fig. 3 - A cylon resurrection in 'Battlestar Galactica'
Things start getting really interesting when one of the cylons, Caprica Six, switches sides and starts working with the humans. She helps them destroy the mother of all resurrection ships, essentially reverting all cylons to a mortal state.
She claims that it is only in death that we actually learn to live. If a humanoid robot, with memories, emotions and self-awareness, can live and die, what is the main difference from them and us, other than the material we are made of?
The tone of most of these stories is very dark – also known as the 'robot-as-menace' strategy. The human-created robots usually outsmart their parents, and look to destroy the inferior human species.
But not all robots are evil. There is a second, much smaller category of stories sometimes known as 'robot-as-pathos'. These robots are loveable and usually put upon by cruel humans. Eando Binder's short story, 'I, Robot' from the 1930's is an example of this type of story.
Fig. 4 - Eando Binder's stories
A robot is wrongfully accused of murdering his master, and is subject to a societal man hunt. Provoked into retaliation, the robot fights back. In the midst of the fight he finds a hidden copy of 'Frankenstein', reads it, and begins to understand the prejudice against him. Taking a higher road than the humans ever could, he decides it isn't worth killing several people just to get a just hearing. He writes a confession and prepares to turn himself in.
In the late 30's, a third and final category of robot story was birthed. Isaac Asimov, the 'world maestro' of science fiction, began imagining robots as industrial products built by matter-of-fact engineers. They were built with safety features so they weren't menaces, but they were fashioned for a specific job, unlike pathos robots in earlier stories.
Fig. 5 - Isaac Asimov's Robot series
From this, he developed the 3 laws of robotics:
Many other authors began writing similar stories and adopting his 3 laws, until it was one day deemed that Isaac Asimov was the 'father of the modern robot story.' In fact, Asimov predicted a number of things in his stories, which have all come true in one form or another today, 50 years since they were written.
In 1953 he conjured up driver-less cars in his short stories like 'Sally', about robotic car characters. Most of his stories feature organisations like U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men Corporation – not unlike the International Federation of Robotics today. We can even draw similarities between the exploration of Google VR painting or projection mapping, and the light sculptures protagonist Mrs. Lardner sculpts in his 1973 short story "Light Verse". Whether he actually predicted these ideas or influenced them is, of course, debatable. Really it just comes back to the concept that life inspires art, which inspires life. The cycle continues infinitely.
There is a lot of hype today around the prediction of where technology and science will take us in the near and distant future. Some see the negative side affects it is having on our social and emotional abilities. Others see the potential it has to raise everyone's standard of living. It is undeniably an exciting time, whether you're in the pessimistic or the optimistic camp.
Do the stories like 'Ex Machina', 'Battlestar Gallactica' and 'Blade Runner' feel plausible and probable? Do you brace yourself in this Wild Wild West era of data mining, privacy violations and cloud storage warehouses? Do you worry how our ability to express ourselves is diminishing? Does the automation of tasks mean a severe loss of jobs for millions of people? What kind of values does this technology advancement reinforce in our lives? What is it teaching us? And how will it be used? For good or evil?
Alternatively, do Isaac Asimov's stories feel more relevant and reasonable? Do you see how globally connected we all are? How families and friends can stay connected across seas with video calls and wifi messaging? Do you see how empowered we are, with the ability to get the people's view of any situation as it happens, anywhere across the globe rather than relying on government-backed media sources? Or how our career options have exponentially exploded with previously unimagined possibilities? What if the automation of tasks doesn't mean a loss of jobs for millions, but rather the opportunity for millions more people to actually work in a field that excites and invigorates them, or to spend more time with family and friends?
Which way is the future going? You decide. We decide. Together.