Killer Robots: 5 Things to Consider
1. Bad robots have been around since the beginning.
According to science fiction, if there’s one thing we should definitely be concerned about, it is murderous machines. Along with a mechanical lion, Leonardo Da Vinci dreamed of making a mechanical knight in armor way back in 1495. The first humanoid robot ever, supposedly it was just to replicate human motions and not to slay rival artists with ruthless efficiency, but that’s not necessarily so. After all, the man also invented the battle tank. Happily for the world, he never found a way of imbuing his robo-knight with his technical genius; otherwise the Renaissance might have turned out far differently.
Not until after the First World War with its soulless, industrial style of death that unstoppable killing machines could really be pictured. For no sooner did people imagine how helpful mechanical servants would be than the dark side also occurred to them.
The very first story about robots was a warning of the apocalypse they would bring. The word “robot” derives from a Czech term for a worker coerced into mindless drudgery. It first appeared in a play by Karel Capek in 1920. The play was called R.U.R, for “Rossum’s Universal Robots,” the name of the company that manufactures these biological androids. It is a strange, grim drama, not only predicting robots but the results of their inevitable rebellion.
It’s not as quite as simple as robots running amok, though that does eventually happen. The mere invention of artificial servants is enough to doom the human race. Once no longer needed, people just stop reproducing long before trouble begins. But humans violently resist being made redundant, so governments, as brilliant as ever, turn the robots into soldiers to put down anti-robot resistance. And so Skynet is born. No, not really, but the robots do revolt and kill the surviving humans anyway. But then they have to figure out a way to keep going without us.
Within twenty years or so, actual mechanical weapons were used in conflict. During the Second World War, the US experimented with remote-controlled aircraft and motorized vehicles. However the Germans’ dreaded V-1 cruise missile and V-2 ballistic missile were just that, having no more independent volition than an artillery shell. But just as they did, these drones pointed the way to the future.
After the war, killer robots became a staple in science fiction. A few writers, including the great Isaac Asimov, tried to rehabilitate them. His positronic robots were all guided by a built-in ethical system arguably superior to ours, the Three Laws of Robotics. When Asimov’s bots got into trouble, it was never due to their own maliciousness but faulty programming by their human masters. Alas, such optimism was all too rare, and inevitably, has led to endless debate among AI enthusiasts.
2. Visions of destructive power always far outstrip abilities.
Why are we so eager to invest such deadly abilities in robots? Fortunately, all the bad bots envisioned until now far outstrip reality. But technology’s catching up fast. Like this “ramdove” from a 1960s underground comic, the military now flies armed Predator drones around with little or no regulation. In fact, humanity is so close to creating real independent slaying machines groups have been formed to push treaties to prohibit them.
Of course, autonomous mechanical soldiers appeared first in fiction. In 1964, Harlan Ellison wrote two episodes for the influential scif-fi anthology TV series, The Outer Limits. The first one, “Soldier”, was about a time-traveling warfighter from the future who tries to save a family from the enemy who follows him back in time. Six weeks later, his “Demon with a Glass Hand” followed, about an immortal military cyborg. The first, and possibly the second, inspired James Cameron’s influential The Terminator to the point that an undisclosed settlement was paid to Ellison when the movie was released.
But visions of robotic destructive capabilities had already taken another tremendous leap forward. They had already been promoted to full-fledged planet-killers with Fred Saberhagen’s “Berserker” series starting in 1963. The first collection of stories on the subject, Berserker, appeared in January 1967. This included SnackRead’s Mr Jester, published first in Worlds of IF Science Fiction magazine a year earlier. A remarkable series of ten novels and six other anthologies followed over the years. (Aside from Amazon, hardback copies of many of Saberhagen’s may be ordered from Fred’s widow, as well as autographed volumes. Information here.)
The concept soon entered popular consciousness. By some sort of weird coincidence, if such it was, just two months after the first collection was published, Norman Spinrad wrote about much the same thing in one of the best episodes of the classic original series of Star Trek, “The Doomsday Machine.”
Unlike berserkers, this thing didn’t just lay waste to living worlds or even blow up planets like the later Death Star. Though also created by a long-dead civilization like berserkers, this beastie ate planets, blasting them to bits and then sucking them down for fuel like a living thing. It’s not commanded by some cranky mama’s boy cyborg with asthma either. Like a berserker, it’s a fully autonomous, self-motivated machine confidently going about its business according to its own ruthlessly inhuman agenda, which if anything makes it scarier than the Death Star.
3. Humanoid robots are not the ones we have to worry about the most.
Robots, being mechanical slaves, were naturally imagined as being human in shape, size, and function. This not only works best in movies. We know how we function at least on a mechanical level, and it would also be the easiest way for robots to fit into our human-scale world.
Perhaps it is the humanoid shape that invites such gloomy expectations of the robot apocalypse, to the point that doom seems well-nigh inevitable. Certainly the historical experience of human slavery is not conducive to optimism. But there are subtler dangers to owning slaves than a brutal bot uprising.
Even the Romans, no slouches they in the slave-driving department, realized that slavery not only inevitably degrades the slave but the master as well. But robot service will be more humane than traditional servitude. It won’t be cruel and vicious for it cannot be compelled by fear and pain. Rather the machines will likely be programmed to prefer their bondage. Humanity could be loved to death. Or robots could wind up as our loyal companions, like huge, super-intelligent, highly-powerful dogs… if we don’t become their pets first.
If the robots ever do rise up, it’s probably won’t be the sexbots and the mechanical butlers who will slaughter the most of us. By that time, we’ll be surrounded by vast networked legions of ubiquitous machines. All our appliances will be robotic, so you’ll probably have a bigger chance of being killed by your toaster than by something built with weak points like eyes just like you.
4. Robotic murder has already occurred.
Robots have long known the tang of blood already – the first murder by machine happened almost 35 years ago. Eerily enough, the very first blow was struck on the 38th anniversary of the premiere of R.U.R. Was it mere coincidence or a cynical confirmation that plans for our extermination have long been set?
The victim: 25-year-old Robert Williams, a worker at a Ford Motor plant. On January 25, 1979, he was picking up parts from a spot where an unidentified robot was also gathering pieces. For whatever reason, the one-ton industrial droid apparently slammed his head into the side of the bin without warning, killing him instantly. The family was awarded $10 million; however. the fate of the murder-bot is not known.
5. There may be really, really big bad things out there.
The sea is full of big fish eating smaller fish. What about the infinite ocean of space? Humans have already imagined doomsday robo-space-worms sucking down entire planetary systems, but it is entirely possible that something, mutant star-goat or whatever, is even now destroying suns in our own Galaxy. That’s right: suns.
The possibility of such cosmic warfare was pointed out by none other than Arthur C. Clarke. In a science article called “The Trouble with Aquila”, he observed that there was a lot of strange activity going in one particular part of the sky. Stars seem to be regularly blowing up in the constellation Aquila.
Perhaps ominously, Aquila represents the thunderbird, the eagle that carried Zeus’ thunderbolts in Greek mythology. Aquila, it should be noted, is an equatorial constellation right along the Milky Way. The home of the bright star Altair, it’s easily visible right now in summer evenings. The stars comprising the constellation, though at great distances from each other, are all closer to the center of the Galaxy than we are, in a region thickly populated with stars and thus possible civilizations. Here’s what Clarke noted:
According to Norton’s Star Atlas, there have been twenty fairly bright novae between 1899 and 1936. No less than five of them have been in one small area of the sky, in the constellation Aquila. There were two in a single year (1936), and the 1918 Nova Aquila was one of the brightest ever recorded.
What’s going on in this constellation? Why did 25 percent of the novae in a forty-year period appear in only 0.25 percent of the sky? Is the front line moving in our direction? [Emphasis in original.]
We may find out eventually as stars in Aquila continue to go nova. Since the piece was written in the 1970s, there have been at least four more novae, including two again in 1995 and one just last year. Whatever the reason, the cosmic violence out there by the Dark Rift may still be going on.