Big Important Things [Part I – Robots]

There’s something about summer that makes me think of Big Important Things. Okay, so it’s not really summer yet. In fact, I think April stands firmly in the spring category. But, the flowers in the garden are blooming, the lake is thoroughly unfrozen, the trees are full and green, the birds have moved about into the nest just outside my window, and everything feels restored in the world. Autumn always feels like the start of something, probably because it was always the beginning of school. Autumn feels like crisp book pages and paper cups of tea with cream and sugar, spring feels pastoral, and summer feels like the start of something better. Summer feels like a break. It feels like it is life, amplified. Even if there is still work and school and responsibilities everything is just a little bit better.

I had a really hard year. It felt like everything that could go bad did. My cat died, my temporary job got worse and has become more than temporary, I had to have two visible teeth extracted, my grandpa died. I sat in the dentist’s chair expecting to hear that I needed two root canals. I expected the money to be the most difficult thing, but as she pronounced, quite cavalierly I might add, that I needed them both out, and that she wouldn’t wait about it I burst into tears. I sat there holding on to my mother’s arm and sobbed that I just needed something good. Just one thing and then it would all feel better. It was October then, and I was having trouble realizing that there were good things. There were plenty of good things, I was just having trouble seeing them. And I am sorry for that. But, in summer it’s easy. In summer everything dissolves into a sort of dreamlike haze.

And somehow it’s conductive to thinking about things that are impossible to think about. Asking the sort of questions that can’t ever be answered, and pondering ideas as a whole. Ideas that were much to big to fit into one little blog post. So… here is Part One:

I have sort of a problem with robots. I mean… they are inherently awesome in general, but I have always found something a little sad about them. During my lunch at work last week somehow this came up. I didn’t really remember it coming up before, but apparently it had. I must talk about robots a lot, I don’t know. I said I found them a little sad and my co-worker, C, said something along the lines of “Oh yeah, you have problems with robots that are self aware.” And that’s really the crux of the problem. I have no issues with robots that are just, well, robots. They trundle along with their little wheels announcing who’s come to the door or what’s for dinner. They are just machines. Household appliances. Things built to make life a little bit lazier. I have no issues with them, they can stay. It’s, quite rightly, the self aware variety that depress the hell out of me, because there’s really only two ways this can go;

1) They realize they are superior and start killing us off, because (let’s face it) they are superior in the respects that they can’t die, are emotionless, and pretty much our only defense, which would be bullets, isn’t going to do much to stop them. And then we have to spend the rest of our lives fighting them off guerilla-style, living in hiding, always scared, John Connor style. This is your Cylon variety, your Matrixes, Terminators, et cetera.

These sorts of stories make me sad in several ways. D once asked me what I was afraid of. We were inebriated behind the movie theatre where we both worked, and if we hadn’t been I might not have told him the truth. Which was: “I’m afraid that robots are going to take over the world and we’ll have to fight them like John Connor.” I don’t… quite think that was what he was expecting to hear. He was probably expecting something along the lines of “Dying alone” or “That no one will never love me”, and to a degree those are true, but I am bat shit terrified of robots taking over.

Why? Well, mostly it’s the fact that I would probably die immediately. I’m clever, but I don’t think I could run that fast. Certainly not faster than a robot. I’m not the most svelte and despite going to the gym at least three times a week I’m still hopelessly out of shape. They’d probably get me first. This is also a problem when the zombie apocalypse comes. But, in this case, I am not particularly afraid for myself. What upsets me is the idea of all the humanity being wiped out of existence. Human beings can do terrible, horrible, unforgivable things. They feel greed, power, and hate. They can destroy. But they can also create. I think sometimes of all the achievements that human beings have managed throughout the millennia. They figured out how to use fire, invented the wheel, discovered an effective form of verbal communication, and managed a monetary system. They made art, literature, discovered that everything, everything, is made up of tiny particles, then they discovered there were even tinier ones. They realized that the universe does not revolve around the Earth, but rather that we revolve around the Sun and that the Sun is just one tiny star in a whole galaxy, and that there were other galaxies with other stars and other planets. They went to the moon. They wrote plays, books, poetry, songs. They made music and figured out how to put moving pictures on a screen, then a smaller screen, then a smaller screen, then an iPod. They took pictures of the world and showed them to the other human beings that couldn’t see them in person. They studied each other, they studied themselves, and they taught other people what they learned. They studied the world and everything else and realized that there was still so much that they hadn’t learned yet. They realized they would never know everything. And why? Because they could, because it was there, and because they had to. If the world lost humanity than they lose everything else, and progress would stop.

Take Doctor Who for example. In this story about a time traveling alien and his human companions we have countless enemies, and one of which is the Cybermen. I never really found them to be all that foreboding. I mean, clearly the main enemy, who are obviously never going away, are the Daleks. They are often confused for robots, but they’re not. They’re more like deformed little… disgusting things that only feel hate and basically drive around tanks. The Cybermen could be considered the secondary villains. In a nutshell, they’re robotic bodies with human brains. They remove all emotion. You feel no pain, no fear, no nothing. They remove all the bad. But the bad comes with the good so you don’t feel love or happiness either. You feel… nothing. Which, I am pretty sure the Doctor agrees, is horrible. Star Trek: The Next Generation’s  Borg go along the same lines as this, but I think the Borg (who are mostly completely awesome because their ship is a giant floating cube) are a lot more about taking over and assimilating. The Cybermen seem to think they are genuinely doing you a favor.

I read an article about a year ago about the military making some robot thing that will hunger for human flesh. It’s meant to clean up battlefields or some such noise of the like, but let me ask you this; DOES THIS SEEM LIKE A GOOD IDEA? When I expressed my incredulousness the person who directed me to the article in the first place responded with “Skynet. I mean, clearly.” Clearly. Sometimes I think that we, as a species, are just asking for it.

[Note: Going back to check my sources it seems they have revised the article. The robot will not consume human or animal remains, but rather extract biomass energy and convert it to fuel. It was Fox News, what did I really expect but faulty journalism? I kept what I had written about it simply because my opinions on the matter still hold, and… well, come on, eventually someone will make something equally as disturbing and dress it up nicely like a sketch by Mitchell & Webb.]

2) They realize that they aren’t superior. They may never die; they may be more efficient and capable of doing menial tasks without complaint. They may not be hampered by human failings, but they will never ever actually feel anything. Sometimes they are aware of this fact, but most of the time they are not. It’s obviously when you get Artificial Intelligence involved (this is another one where I am unsure of whether or not to capitalize and went with yes cause it looks cooler). Actually, Steven Spielberg’s film of the same name is probably the perfect example of this. Kid gets made, kid has family, kid is rejected by family when real son is cured of incurable disease, kid longs to be real. The obvious difference here is that kid, who’s name is David, feels emotions. Which, I suppose, is the point of artificial intelligence. One would think that feeling emotions would be enough to make someone “real”, but it’s not. It’s just not. Like Pinocchio before him, David wants to be a real boy.

WALL –E is another example. I loved this movie, do not get me wrong, in fact, I think it may be my favorite of the Pixar fare, but I couldn’t help my entirely mixed feelings about it. Meaning, of course, it alternatively made sad and go “Awww”. Wall-E is a robot, in case you’ve been living under a rock and are unaware of culturally relevant things. He’s left on Earth to clean up the various debris while the human race floats around in a giant spaceship so fat that they can’t even walk anymore. If that’s not the bleakest view of humanity’s future then I don’t know what is. But, the thing that got me was that Wall-E, all alone on this planet, is lonely. He’s so lonely that he collects things to keep and watches Hello, Dolly! on a loop. Let me repeat, this is a robot that’s left on Earth to clean shit up, all alone who has the ability to feel lonely. Sentience is not an accident, it doesn’t just happen, someone made him that way. That’s really awful. And now, I know it’s a movie, and it’s a kid’s movie, and that it would be a pretty boring movie is we couldn’t at least pretend that Wall-E had emotions. It’s not designed to make people sad, I don’t think, but I almost cried.

I can understand the impulse to make something in our image; I mean apparently God did it. And I can understand the want to make it as real as possible. But at the same time it’s straight horrifying. To be almost human but not quite, and to know that you’ll never be, forever, is really bad. In my opinion. I ran this topic by my friend J the other night and he agreed saying that people thought he was nuts when he said that Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Data was sort of sad. But he is sad; I always thought he was written to be. He’s probably the prime example of a robot, android in this instance, which wants to be real. He feels emotions, somewhat, but he wants to feel more. He talks about it all the time. And I am not even a huge Next Generation fan. I mean, I’ve probably seen twenty episodes and remember a collective ten minutes, and I know this. It doesn’t matter how many love interests they grant him, or how “fully functional” he may be, or how much the Borg Queen fucks around with his biomechanics; Data is not a human being. A fact of which he is fully aware. He’s sort of like the Spock of that series. The character that’s not able to process emotions in the same way that everyone else does but who has small sparks of sentiment. The difference is that Spock is fighting to reconcile his home planet’s tradition with his half human side and his human friends, Data was manufactured.

The issue that I guess I have is that I find it heartbreaking when people, or things it would seem, are unable to reach the potential they see for themselves because of whatever reason. Like a paraplegic whose dream it is to run a marathon. Your dad can push you all you like and you’ll be there and part of something, but it’s still not you. And so many stories about robots that don’t have them taking over the world run with the idea that they’d like to be something they’re not. They want to be what they are designed to be like. An emotion chip may be a wonderful thing but it’s not real. It will never be real. And that’s tragic.

So, yes, robots make me sad. Either way you go with robots really. In the first example because they wipe out humanity, and in the second because they can’t ever quite be what they want to be. Okay, so maybe all this isn’t Important, with the capital, but it’s ponder-worthy. You can’t deny that.

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About Lindsay

I have a C'est Moi page, you should probably just read that.
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One Response to Big Important Things [Part I – Robots]

  1. Alee says:

    Here’s to hoping you have a great spring and summer.

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