I know it is a sign of ingratitude on the part of the author, if he raises both hands against a certain popularity that has befallen something which is called his spiritual brainchild; for that matter, he is aware that by doing so he can no longer change a thing. The author was silent a goodly time and kept his own counsel, while the notion that robots have limbs of metal and innards of wire and cogwheels (or the like) has become current; he has learned, without any great pleasure, that genuine steel robots have started to appear, robots that move in various directions, tell the time, and even fly aeroplanes; but when he recently read that, in Moscow, they have shot a major film, in which the world is trampled underfoot by mechanical robots, driven by electromagnetic waves, he developed a strong urge to protest, at least in the name of his own robots. For his robots were not mechanisms. They were not made of sheet-metal and cogwheels. They were not a celebration of mechanical engineering. If the author was thinking of any of the marvels of the human spirit during their creation, it was not of technology, but of science. With outright horror, he refuses any responsibility for the thought that machines could take the place of people, or that anything like life, love, or rebellion could ever awaken in their cogwheels. He would regard this sombre vision as an unforgivable overvaluation of mechanics or as a severe insult to life.

The author of the robots appeals to the fact that he must know the most about it: and therefore he pronounces that his robots were created quite differently—that is, by a chemical path. The author was thinking about modern chemistry, which in various emulsions (or whatever they are called) has located substances and forms that in some ways behave like living matter. He was thinking about biological chemistry [sic], which is constantly discovering new chemical agents that have a direct regulatory influence on living matter; about chemistry, which is finding—and to some extent already building—those various enzymes, hormones, and vitamins that give living matter its ability to grow and multiply and arrange all the other necessities of life. Perhaps, as a scientific layman, he might develop an urge to attribute this patient ingenious scholarly tinkering, with the ability to one day produce, by artificial means, a living cell in the test tube; but for many reasons, amongst which also belonged a respect for life, he could not resolve to deal so frivolously with this mystery. That is why he created a new kind of matter by chemical synthesis, one which simply behaves a lot like the living; it is an organic substance, different to that from which living cells are made; it is something like another alternative to life, a material substrate, in which life could have evolved, if it had not, from the beginning, taken a different path. We do not have to suppose that all the different possibilities of creation have been exhausted on our planet. The author of the robots would regard it as an act of scientific bad taste if he had brought something to life with brass cogwheels or created life in the test tube; the way he imagined it, he created only a new foundation for life, which began to behave like living matter, and which could therefore have become a vehicle of life — but a life which remains an unimaginable and incomprehensible mystery. This life will reach its fulfilment only when (with the aid of considerable inaccuracy and mysticism) the robots acquire souls. From which it is evident that the author did not invent his robots with the technological hubris of a mechanical engineer, but with the metaphysical humility of a spiritualist.

Well then, the author cannot be blamed for what might be called the worldwide humbug over the robots. The author did not intend to furnish the world with plate-metal dummies stuffed with cogwheels, photovoltaic cells, and other mechanical gizmos. It appears, however, that the modern world is not interested in his scientific robots and has replaced them with technological ones; and these are, as is apparent, the true flesh-of-our-flesh of our age. The world needed mechanical robots, for it believes in machines more than it believes in life; it is fascinated more by the marvels of technology than by the miracle of life. For which reason, the author who wanted—through his insurgent robots, striving for a soul—to protest against the mechanical superstition of our times, must in the end claim something, which nobody can deny him: the honour that he was defeated.

Karel Čapek
Karel Čapek: the Man Who Gave us Robots
Lido’vé noviny, 43, 9 June 1935
Trans. Cyril Simsa

Ever since the word “robot” first appeared in the English language in the early 1920s (although it was invented by a Czech writer), science fiction writers have warned about the blurring of the distinction between human and machine.

Robots are becoming more and more like humans, such that it may one day become difficult to tell the two apart. But were they ever really so different? Philip K. Dick suggests possibly not, and his vision of replicants in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) – which was to become a classic movie, Blade Runner – certainly poses a lot of important questions.

It’s not just robots we have to worry about these days. AI is now perhaps an even bigger threat than its robot cousins. From the ominous HAL 9000 in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), to the “benevolent” AI character Mike in Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966), we’ve been warned that the power of AI to infiltrate every aspect of our daily lives might one day prove our undoing – and we will have no one to blame but ourselves.

Mike Ryder
Visions of the future: five dark warnings from the world of classic science fiction

ability to do mischief

June 16, 2019

Why give a robot an order to obey orders — why aren’t the original orders enough? Why command a robot not to do harm — wouldn’t it be easier never to command it to do harm in the first place?  Does the universe contain a mysterious force pulling entities toward malevolence, so that a positronic brain must be programmed to withstand it? Do intelligent beings inevitably develop an attitude problem? (…) Now that computers really have become smarter and more powerful, the anxiety has waned. Today’s ubiquitous, networked computers have an unprecedented ability to do mischief should they ever go to the bad. But the only mayhem comes from unpredictable chaos or from human malice in the form of viruses. We no longer worry about electronic serial killers or subversive silicon cabals because we are beginning to appreciate that malevolence — like vision, motor coordination, and common sense — does not come free with computation but has to be programmed in. (…) Aggression, like every other part of human behaviour we take for granted, is a challenging engineering problem!”

Steven Pinker
How the Mind Works

witch-outline

Diary 5th March

There was a woman who lived alone at the end of Walton Drive. Her house was beside the “danger point” (its name came from the red and white sign in the centre of the road that read DANGER). Beyond the sign there was no more road, just a wilderness of trees and shrubs, nettles and brambles. A veritable jungle where kids could turn wild and play. And where the woman often walked alone on a winter’s evening.

‘She’s a witch,’ Susan said. ‘She goes down there at night and makes spells.’

‘She gave Maureen warts for cheeking her,’ Linda claimed.

The girls seemed convinced, but we boys were less certain. A witch? Did such things really exist?

One Sunday afternoon we were playing football in the road near the ‘point’ and Alan kicked the ball into the woman’s front garden. Little Billy went off to get it when the front door opened and the woman came out.

Standing in the road we could see they were talking, but couldn’t hear what was being said. The woman, tall and skinny, was dressed all in black, as usual. She wore thick black mascara round her eyes and mauve lipstick on her mouth, and she had silver rings on all her fingers – including her thumbs. We were surprised when Billy tossed the ball back to us, and followed the woman into her house.

Billy reappeared an hour or so later. His face was very flushed –as if he’d been running.

‘What did she want?’ Alan asked him.

‘She gave me a biscuit and a glass of orange juice,’ Billy said.

‘But you were gone ages.’

Billy’s eyes became suddenly cautious. He glanced to right and left. ‘She took my shorts down,’ he said quietly. ‘She touched my “you know what”…’

‘Your cock?’ Alan said. ‘She touched that? I don’t believe you!’

‘Well she did, see. Honest, she did.’

‘You’re a liar Billy. You’re making it all up.’

‘She told me to come back next Sunday when she had more time. She’d do something extra nice.’

‘Rubbish,’ Alan decided. ‘Boy’s gone sick in the head…’

Later, in Angela’s back garden, Linda told Billy not to go back. ‘She’s a witch,’ she said. ‘Witches hate little boys. She’s probably got this sharp pair of scissors to cut your thing off. She’s more than likely got a collection of boys willies in a glass jar, and uses them in her spells.’

Undeterred by this warning (or anything else) Billy returned to the witch house the following Sunday.

What went on there? I’ve no idea, and Billy didn’t say when he reappeared later in the day. Alan kept on at him, but Billy stayed stumm.

Linda asked him, ‘Did she touch it again?’

He wouldn’t answer.

Whatever happened, happened, and would remain a secret between Billy and the witch.

Then – perhaps almost a year later – I was walking with Billy through the churchyard one Saturday afternoon. We were talking about the future – the far future. All the technological changes that might take place. How we might each of us end up with our own personal robot to do all the household chores. And flying cars, of course. We’d each have one of those. And we’d be able to chose the sex of our children…boy or girl.

‘D’you really believe that?’ Billy asked.

‘Why not?’

‘The witch,’ he said, then hesitated.

‘What about her,’ I prompted.

‘She said if I tell about her, she’ll know it. Said she’d transform me into a girl, if I ever said anything about her…’

‘That’s nonsense, Billy. She’s not a real witch. She can’t do anything like that!’

‘Says you,’ he said. ‘I’ve seen some of the things she can do.’

‘When?’

‘I go to her house sometimes. I keep it secret, like. She doesn’t want anyone to know.’

‘So what does she do?’

‘I can’t tell,’ Billy said. ‘I can’t ever say…’

And that was that. Billy’s secret remained secret. And to the best of my knowledge he never ever mentioned the witch again. But often I’ve wondered exactly what it was he’d witnessed at the witch house that frightened him into permanent silence!

And was the experience real or an hallucination?

Did our witch put some narcotic substance, a small amount of peyote for instance, in his orange juice? A drug induced hallucination would be sufficient to confuse…

To terrify.

I imagine them both somewhere between taboo and transgression in her dark house: Billy experiencing the exhilarating sensations of her hands and her body; she over-stepping society’s limits with her unrestrained sexual license.

And beyond the sexual frenzy, the fear!

Following a sip of her ‘special’ orange juice. Her conjuration made horrifyingly potent. Candles and darkness; smoke and mirrors…

Or was it all just a lie? Make-believe…?

Yes, I often wonder what ultimately became of our Billy.