Tag Archives: robots

Stories of Creation Becoming Creator

Reading Sherry Turkle’s thoughts on social robotics got me thinking of other stories where we, as God’s creation, grasp at the chance to create some form of life ourselves. It has become rather common in recent science fiction, but the theme actually has quite a long and varied history.

The earliest expressions that I know of are the various golem legends from mystical Judaism (see Golem by Moshe Idel). The golem was a humanoid creature who, like Adam, was formed out of dust or clay, but by a human creator, not God. The mechanism by which the golem was then brought to life varies over time, but by the middle ages most stories attributed this animating power to the Hebrew word for ‘truth’, which was inscribed upon the golem’s forehead. Interestingly, the golem is later unmade by erasing the first letter of the word, resulting in the Hebrew word for ‘dead’.

In the most-cited stories, the golem is more like a monstrous beast who protects persecuted Jews from Gentile attacks, but in some of the older legends, the golem is more like a human and able to speak. One such legend tells of the prophet Jeremiah creating a nearly perfect replica of a human, which he animates by writing upon it the phrase “The Lord God is Truth” (see Schwartz, Tree of Souls, 279). But as soon as the golem is brought to life, it begins to rebuke Jeremiah for creating it. The golem explains that by creating a perfect human replica, Jeremiah has put himself in the place of God. Symbolically and quite provocatively, the golem wipes off the first letter of the Hebrew word for ‘truth’, leaving the phrase “The Lord God is Dead.”

The dangers associated with creating new life is also at the heart of Mary Shelley’s famous gothic novel, Frankenstein. The book’s alternative title, The Modern Prometheus, is actually quite telling: the Greek Titan Prometheus is most often associated with introducing humans to the power of fire, but in some accounts Prometheus also played a crucial role in creating the initial humans by fashioning them out of clay. In Shelley’s novel, Dr Frankenstein becomes the modern form of Prometheus after he discovers the scientific basis for animating flesh. Driven by a lust to accomplish his task and become the greatest scientist in the world, Frankenstein never pauses to consider the ramifications of his work until it is too late. As soon as the monster is brought to life, Frankenstein turns from his creation in disgust and literally runs out of the room.

Interestingly, Shelley never described how Dr Frankenstein created the physical form of his monster, nor the mechanism he used to bring it to life. Our common images of Frankenstein robbing graves, stitching together various mismatched limbs with the help of a hunch-backed assistant, and animating them with electricity come more from the 1931 film adaptation than the original novel. That film also gave us the iconic portrayal of the monster as a zombie-like, mute creature with bolts in its neck, that moves more like a robot than a man. In Shelley’s novel, however, the monster is actually quite agile, emotional, and articulate.

Similar to the case of Jeremiah’s golem, the Frankenstein story pivots around a tense confrontation between the creation and its creator. The details are quite different though: Dr Frankenstein wants to destroy his monster (as it has just murdered Frankenstein’s brother); and instead of telling his creator to unmake him, the monster demands that Frankenstein create it a companion. Shelley seems relatively unconcerned about the moral implications of replacing God, concentrating instead on the unforeseen consequences of creating something that the creator is unable to control. Shelley uses this as a metaphor for her concerns about modern science and industrialization, but we could just as easily use it when discussing more recent creations, such as atomic weapons, artificial intelligence, and robotic humanoids.

A man holding a gun, a woman holding a cigarette, and a city-scape.This confrontation between disgruntled creation and creator also figures prominently in the classic science fiction film Blade Runner, which was based loosely upon the Phillip Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In the movie’s world, the all-powerful Tyrell corporation has succeeded in creating artificial biological life forms, known as “replicants,” that are virtually indistinguishable from humans, except for their enhanced physical prowess. Replicants are used for dangerous work on other planets, but because they have a nasty tendency to revolt against their human overlords, they are created with a relatively short lifespan, and are banned from returning to Earth.

The plot of the film follows one gang of replicants who have managed to come back to Earth for the purpose of confronting their creator and demanding more life. In the pivotal scene, the lead replicant (played brilliantly by Rutger Hauer) manages to get an audience with his creator and expresses his grievances. Here’s the clip, which I highly recommend watching, though it does get a bit gross at the end:

This scene is full of provocative references. Tyrell’s apartment has the look of a heavenly court, or some kind of temple. The disgruntled creation brings its case against the creator, demanding what it thinks it should have. The creator doesn’t exactly refuse the request as much as explain that it is impossible to comply given the reality that is already set in motion (similar to the weeds and wheat parable). The creator calls his creation “the prodigal son,” which prompts the creation to confess its sins, and the creator to absolve them. But this absolution, or perhaps the realization that his efforts are fruitless, causes a change in the creation, leading it to kiss and then kill its creator (perhaps an allusion to Nietzsche?).

As we continue to develop more advanced techniques in biomechanics and robotics, stories like these become even more important to read, ponder, and discuss. Do we fully understand the implications of creating new beings that could be considered to be “alive?” What is the difference between using our God-given creative ability to create art or artifacts versus creating a new form of life? Is there a difference between creating hybrid or genetically-modified plant or animal species and creating an “improved” human? As people of faith, at what point do our creative acts attempt to usurp God?

Sherry Turkle’s Robotic Moment

I was fifteen years old when the film The Terminator was released, and it offered just about everything a fifteen year old boy in the 1980s could ever wish for in a film: a mind-bending, time-warping science fiction plot; a massively-powerful, ruthless, motorcycle-riding, robotic bad guy; a clever, heroic, and thoroughly-human good guy; and of course a hot, but resourceful, female love interest. Like most adolescent boys, I was unsure which male character I would rather be; you are supposed to identify with the hero, but there was something kind of alluring about being a robot who could not be hurt, either physically or emotionally.

But the terminator in the first film was pretty frightening. He was so…well…inhuman. Like a runaway computer program, it pursued its goal without concern and without emotion. Although it had adopted a humanoid form, one could not relate to it like a human. It had absolutely no empathy. The terminator was strictly an “it.”

When the second film came out in 1991, it was hailed for its cutting-edge computerized graphic effects, but the graphics were not the only thing that had significantly changed (spoiler alert!). In a clever twist, a terminator with the same humanoid form shows up, but this time it was sent to protect the young future leader from a new, more-advanced model. The young future leader quickly learns to trust the good terminator, and begins to relate to it as if it were a human. In classic Star Trek fashion, the terminator begins to express more human traits, including a form of empathy and self-sacrifice. The film concludes with a tearful farewell scene, where the young future leader cries over the destruction of the good terminator in the same way he would do so over a fallen human friend. The machine had become a kind-of person, a sort-of “thou.”

This shift in human-machine relations is emblematic of what Sherry Turkle discusses in the first section of her new book, entitled Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Turkle is a psychologist by training who has spent the last thirty years or so investigating the way humans relate to technology, especially computerized communication media. In this recent book, however, she spends the first section discussing various kinds of artificial intelligence and robotic toys: Tamagotchis, Furbies, AIBOs, and My Real Babies. She notes that children relate to these sociable toys in different ways than kids of my generation related to our Merlin, Simon, and Speak & Spell devices.

When children of my generation encountered these early “computational objects,” we were challenged to decide what exactly these new things were. Was the Speak & Spell just a noisy new kind of toy, or was it somehow intelligent or even “alive?” After all, it could ask me questions, respond to my answers, and beat me at spelling games, just like my mother could. But it was also a bit like the original terminator; its voice and mannerisms were highly mechanical, and it had a very limited repertoire of interaction. It didn’t take me long to feel no remorse when I turned it off and tossed it aside.

In the 1990s, children began to encounter a decidedly different sort of toy: one that not only seemed to think, but also to move and relate to them like a fellow creature. Despite the fact that Tamagotchis had only a digital manifestation, children felt real remorse when their Tamagotchis died, and would often “burry” them and buy new ones rather than simply reset their current one. When the Furby came out, the creature was given not only a physical manifestation, but also a voice, one that initially spoke “Furbish.” Children were encouraged to teach their Furby English, and amazingly the Furby seemed to respond to the teaching; in actuality, the Furby was pre-programmed to gradually shift to English no matter what happened, but the illusion helped the child bond with the toy in a way that went beyond the typical child-doll relationship. Children who “raised” these new social toys considered them to be “kind-of alive,” something more than a toy, perhaps closer to a pet.

Turkle observed this new classification first-hand through an experiment designed by Freedom Baird, a graduate of the MIT Media Lab. Baird developed a sort of Turing Test for the heart (see previous post), which was designed to determine “under what conditions a creature is deemed alive enough for people to experience an ethical dilemma if it is distressed” (loc 1062). Baird had her participants hold a Barbie doll, a Furby, and a biological gerbil upside-down for as long as their emotions would allow them to do so. None had troubles dangling Barbie upside down, and nearly all released the gerbil as soon as it showed signs of distress. When the participants flipped-over the Furby, it began to whine and say that it was scared, causing most to feel guilty and turn it back upright within thirty seconds. The participants, many of whom were adults who fully understood that the Furby was just a robot, found it difficult to torment the toy because its cries make them think of it as a fellow creature.

But is there anything wrong with children, or even adults, relating to their technological devices like fellow creatures? Turkle thinks there is. In the opening of the book, she states her concerns clearly:

These days, insecure in our relationships and anxious about intimacy, we look to technology for ways to be in relationships and protect ourselves from them at the same time…. We bend to the inanimate with new solicitude. We fear the risks and disappointments of relationships with our fellow humans. We expect more from technology and less from each other (loc 153).

Turkle worries that these social robotic toys are only the beginning. What will happen when clever engineers develop “My Real Girlfriend?” Will socially-awkward men prefer the company of a robotic girlfriend that is programmed to assert its will only just-enough to keep up the illusion?

Even if robotic girlfriends never come to pass, Turkle’s quote hints at another technologically-mediated form of relationship with which most of us are already quite familiar: social network media. That is the focus of the second part of her book, and will likewise be the focus of my next post.

For now, here is the ending scene from Terminator 2: