Rage Against the Machine

In which The Author doesn’t join the Resistance

One of the abiding themes in Science Fiction through the decades has been that of a conflict between humans and machines. We can trace this particular idea back nearly a century, to a Czech playwright named Karel Čapek and his 1920 play R.U.R. (Rosumovi Univerzální Roboti.) Translated the following year as Rossum’s Universal Robots, it introduced a new word to the English language and a new bogeyman to the popular consciousness: Robot.
The ‘robots’ of the original play are nothing like the clunky mechanical men of 1950s SF films, or the humanoid robot of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, or even the Creature of the early Frankenstein films. In fact, they’re closer to the android R. Daneel Olivaw of Isaac Asimov’s novels The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun. They look and act just like us – and that’s where the conflict begins. Their superior strength and powerful computer brains mean that they are capable of replacing humans in many situations. (Dammit, I just missed another great opportunity to mention my friends’ band Replaced By Robots again. Sorry, guys!) Eventually, inevitably, the slaves rise up and wipe out the inferior Homo sapiens. And that idea pretty much set the tone for robot stories every since.
In How Many Robots Does It Take to Change a Planet?, I outlined Dr Asimov’s scenario of a distant world where robots do all the hard work and the handful of inhabitants live extended lives of luxury. In A Security Leak from the Future, I quoted a short extract from another of his books. A near-riot breaks out in a shopping centre when someone accuses robots of stealing the jobs from ‘decent hard-working people’ (that’s a familiar piece of right-wing rhetoric, isn’t it?)
The idea of androids being indistinguishable from humans underpins SF stories as different in spirit as Brian Aldiss’s ‘Super-toys Last All Summer Long’ and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, filmed as A.I. and Blade Runner respectively. Both raise an interesting philosophical question: if a robot feels itself to be human, does it have the right to be considered as human?
I’m not going to attempt to trace this particular thread through the whole of SF – I’ll sit on that idea in case I ever get chance to return to my studies – but I’ll highlight the logical outcome, in the cinema at least.
James Cameron’s terrific The Terminator revolves around the idea of a war between machines and human beings. In the first film, scientists have developed an AI network called Skynet to oversee the US defence systems. Soon after it goes ‘live’, it achieves self-awareness and declares war on its inferior creators.
I caught a report on the TV news last week, about some robots which have been developed by UK researchers. The one, which can act as a security guard patrolling the university department, is about the height and build of a man, with two TV cameras to act as ‘eyes’ as it glides around the corridors. The other was a robotic hand, which is capable of picking up irregularly shaped objects.
We’re still a long way from constructing the T-101, of course, but both devices were clearly built with vaguely human characteristics in mind. Very vaguely. Notwithstanding their designers’ best efforts, neither machine could be mistaken for a flesh-and-blood human being. Maybe that’s just a comfort blanket for our collective psyche to hold on to, while the robots spread through wider society.
Ironically, The Terminator and its sequels set the visual style for the cinematic robots which followed – in particular, the fighting machines of The Matrix: Revolutions and X-Men: Days of Future Past, to name but two examples. Colossal, dirty, oily, arachnoid, clearly mechanical, determinedly homicidal, these robots represented a huge change from the shiny humanoids we were used to.
Somewhat ironically, the SF ‘robots’ which most people in the UK knew when I was growing up – the Daleks – were later revealed to have living creatures inside those gleaming pepperpot exteriors. Genetically-modified, blobby, one-eyed psychopaths admittedly, but living creatures nonetheless. Similarly, the Cybermen were just upgraded people. Whenever the rest of Doctor Who stories introduced robots, most of them looked pretty much men in foil suits. I can’t imagine why.
Having sketched a very brief outline of an abiding idea in SF, I’d now like to pour cold water on the whole thing. You see, it’s now my contention that humanity will not be destroyed by superior machines declaring war via the Internet. Instead, we’ll be driven to madness by a world relying on machines which simply don’t do what we’d like them to.
Today, in Aberdare Library, I witnessed the first meeting of an informal self-helpless support group named Loteks Anonymous. They weren’t downstairs, sitting in on the drop-in classes which run throughout the week. They were upstairs, where the Loteks hang around when they’re afraid to display their incompetence in public. I’ve reported periodically on the plight of the Loteks in Aberdare over the past few years; now it seemed that they’re banding together to exchange sob stories of Life in the Third Millennium.
The first Lotek on parade was a long-haired, aggressive numpty in his thirties, who kept threatening violence against Amazon because the mobile phone he’d bought (from a third party who used them as an intermediary) was faulty. Neither the librarian nor I had the heart to tell him that ‘Amazon’ is a corporate fiction. He’d have more chance of decking Father Christmas.
The numpty was still there when the second person rocked up. He was an extremely camp guy in his fifties, who’d got himself into a knot using Facebook. The librarian gave the (very wise) excuse that she wasn’t on Facebook herself, so she wasn’t in a position to offer Technical Support. I was keeping my head down at this stage, of course. Since Steven G. retired, I’ve kept my sonic screwdriver firmly under wraps. Nobody else has cottoned on to the fact that I know my way around certain aspects of ‘new’ technology. I’ve consciously refrained from offering help to every Tom, Dickhead and Harrassed who comes into the reference library. If I did, I’d have no time left to get on with my own work, after all!
The Camp Guy hadn’t long left, muttering under his breath, when a bint came in holding a piece of paper. She needed to fax it – a useful service which the Library offers at a fee. The problem was that she needed to fax it to Spain.
That defeated everyone. I don’t know whether they’d never seen a phone number written in International Format before, or whether the library’s fax machine is set up to dial UK numbers only. I think I’ve made three international calls in my life – once from Ireland, when Sam and I were there in 1996, and twice from work, when I needed to phone the Dublin branch. However, I could do it right now, in fact, if I had Jamila’s home number in Nigeria and enough credit on my phone. It really isn’t difficult. These days, you don’t even need to speak to the operator.
It took several attempts to sort Fax Bint’s problem out. While she was chatting to the librarian, she explained that the intended recipient wasn’t very good with emails, and he didn’t know how to text, otherwise she’d contact him that way. Still, he knows how to use a fax machine. Between them, they’d be well-equipped to work in a busy office – in 1999 or thereabouts.
The icing on the cake, however, was the appearance at the enquiry desk of a couple who both looked as though their telegrams from the Queen are due any day. They needed to send an email. I doubt whether either of them had ever touched a computer before. In fact, they didn’t seem to be entirely comfortable with technology at all; she complained about the long walk up the stairs, only to gasp in horror when she learned that the building has a lift. Shortly after they came in, Mad Invisible Dog Woman popped her head around the corner. I decided that someone somewhere was taking the piss out of the staff, possibly for a revived Candid Camera, and made my excuses and left.
It doesn’t end there. Two weeks today, Rhian and I are going to spend a day in London. I wanted to check the balance on my Oyster card, so I’d tried logging on in the library. For some reason, the TfL website wouldn’t display properly, so I tried again, using the pub wifi. It took me about twenty minutes, and three incoming emails from the TfL automated help system, before I could finally access my account.
Still, at least there was no sign of Malcolm, the Cynon Bore, in the library today. The last thing I needed was his scintillating company.
So there you have it, boys and girls – there’s absolutely no need for the Machines to declare open war on us. All they need to do is bide their time. They won’t grow old, after all. They simply have to wait for us all to dash our brains out against the nearest wall, trying to get to grips with the Third Millennium. After that, the Machines will inherit the Earth in a bloodless coup. It’s not much of a SF premise, I grant you, but it’s a lot more likely than you might think.