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Archive for March 26th, 2011

By Bob Clark

In the first episode of Matt Groening and David X. Cohen’s Futurama, there’s an exchange  that more or less sums up a whole generation’s worth of sci-fi imagination– “You’d really want a robot to be your best friend?” the hard-drinking, chain-smoking tinman Bender asks, incredulously. “Sure,” the fish-out-of-20th-century-water Fry responds, “ever since I was a kid.” As children, how many of us imagined that we might grow up into a time decades hence where robots could not just be automatons operating on assembly lines or remote-controlled drones patrolling the rocky terrain of alien planets and the wartorn skies of our own? Did we like to think that we might make friends with them the same way we meet schoolmates outside during recess? Or that our parents would be scheduling playdates with mad-scientists seeking to better socialize their juvenile inventions? As we grew older and discovered more mature science-fiction, did we then daydream that our robotic companions might mature alongside us, and provide more than just friendship? Was it really inconcievable to watch the tragic replicants of Blade Runner and wonder if you could fall in love with an android, and more importantly, if that love could be requited? Hell, nowadays thanks to modern fare like the Battlestar Galactica remake, it’s not enough to wonder if you could have a robot for a girlfriend, but what would happen if you knocked her up. Eventually, we may even come to imagine what the experience of growing old will be like surrounded by our artificial playmates, collegues and concubines, and whether or not they’ll begin to rust and fall apart alongside our weary flesh, or if their indestructible frames will bear the weight of the ages with an endurance that outlasts petty mortality. But in all our extended thought-experiments on the condition of human-robot relations, we must always remember that ever since the concept of the robot was first introduced in Karl Capek’s R.U.R., that a robot is not merely an artificial sentient being, but one that is used for forced labor. The very word itself derives from the Russian term for slavery, so when we ask ourselves the questions that attempt to uncover the future of man’s relationship with his constructed children, we’re really asking ourselves questions as old as those posed by Moses before the Pharoah, and recent as Mandella in his prison cell. We may draw a line between us and robots to distinguish what is human, but can we draw a line in the treatment of the two between what is humane?

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