Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto

Coming to a theatre near you: the annual “machines are taking over the world” scare.

This year it comes in the form of a movie loosely based on the Isaac Asimov classic, I, Robot. The book was a thoughtful piece of fiction about the potential evolution of robots from cute playthings to complex, autonomous creatures. The movie appears to be about whether we can trust robots not to murder us. There's probably also a car chase scene in there somewhere.

Okay, to be fair, I haven't actually seen the movie yet, but I know how these things go. We've been trying to scare ourselves about technology since the dawn of time. For example, back in the cave days:

MURG: Hey, lookit! I invent da wheel!

BLAG: What it good for?

MURG: Hook it to wagon, pull things along very easy like!

BLAG: Yikes! Someone gonna get hurt with dat! It go too fast! Keep it away from me!

Or later on:

JOD: Have a look, worthy village comrade. I have learned how to forge metal tools.

BEA: What good will those serve?

JOD: We can hunt animals more efficiently, and clean and gut them easily. No more laboring over breakable flints!

BEA: [touching one of the tools]. Ouch! You have a point! That's going to take out someone's eye!

JOD: But it will allow us to nap instead of knapp!

BEA: Hmph. What was wrong with stone? Why, back when I was a young man…

Indeed, not even the greatest of inventors was safe from the naysayers:

LEONARDO: Behold! I have invented a flying device! It has a blade which spins to elevate it and wings to keep it steady.

MARIO: Man was not meant to have spinning blades.


MARIO: Man was not meant to have wings either.

LEONARDO: But think how quickly you could get to Florence and…

MARIO: And why would I want to go to Florence?


MARIO: Leo, baby, stick with the painting. Did I mention I know this girl named Mona who needs a portrait?

Why are we so worried about technology, and/or machines taking over? Quite possibly it’s because we've done such a good job managing this planet, keeping the environment clean, feeding the hungry, ending war and strife that we're afraid machines would muck it up. Hmm, wait a minute…

Or maybe it's we're afraid that machines will become smarter than us and we won't be able to keep up with them. Of course, what many people don't realize is that if we have robots doing all the dangerous or dirty drudge work, we will be free to become more intelligent. Because surely given oodles of free time, people will spend it learning and improving their lot.

Hmm, hang on a second…

All right well, whatever the source of worries, there's no immediate cause for alarm. It will be some time before robots can even come close to human abilities. I know this because out of the last nine entrants into the robotics hall of fame, five were fictional robots like C3P0 and R2D2 of Star Wars. The most capable real robot, Asimo, has some fancy moves, but is still missing a silicon chip or two upstairs, if you catch my drift.

And in any case, we don't even understand human intelligence very well yet, much less artificial intelligence. Nobody can currently predict with any amount of accuracy, for example, who will go on to fame and fortune and who will not. Or who will be a quiet cog in the machine of humanity and who will become a great world leader.

Indeed, we have yet to answer that fundamental question: Are our children learning?

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