Time.com - By Lance Morrow
September 1, 2000
(TIME.com) -- Perversely timed to Labor Day comes news,
the journal Nature, that computer scientists at Brandeis
University have created a robot that can make a robot,
almost entirely without human help.
Imagine that the Stepford Wives had acquired Stepford
Husbands and produced a Stepford Baby.
I suppose that the only hope for labor unions in this
-- the beginning of the realization of science fiction
nightmares hypothesized for years -- is that eventually
drone robots, in a future robot civilization, will teach
themselves to sing, "I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last
night,/alive as you and me," and will walk out of the robot
factories, pumping molybdenum fists in the air and striking
to demand ... to demand.... What is it we want, fellas?
Better pay? More frequent lubrication? The wily programmers
will have eliminated all troublesome human urgencies from
the worker 'bots. It will not occur to them to strike. Your
ideal robot has zero discontents. The American labor
movement may be in deeper trouble than it imagined.
Science fiction has long been at work on scenarios of
that evolve and manufacture ever-improving versions of
themselves, and eventually develop human traits -- the
capacity to feel, to love, to hate. In such fiction, the
climactic poignancy occurs when the automaton,
love-stricken, sheds a tear. This is because the robot, like
Hemingway's Jake Barnes in "The Sun Also Rises," has a sad
incapacity to mate; surely that is one of the first defects
the shrewd robots would correct.
But the sheer non-fiction of the scene in the lab of
Jordan B. Pollack and Hod Lipson at Brandeis gives one a
metaphysical chill. Their primitive little creature,
offspring of their robot, has one ability only: It crawls.
Dr. Lipson tells The New York Times that the robot "walks
something like a crab. It looks like it's crawling on the
floor." This sounds eerily familiar.
For the moment, the scientists report, the robotyke
brainpower of bacteria: "We hope to get up to insect level
in a couple of years." Meantime, in another part of the
forest, the human genome project is nearly complete. Peering
into the future, one dimly discerns a convergence. Here are
the projected patterns:
1) Humans, working with the genome roadmap, evolve
themselves -- correcting nature's blunders, fixing a defect
of vision here, a tendency toward diabetes there, until in
the fullness of time a perfected human specimen walks the
Earth, while, simultaneously, 2) The robots, in their
parallel universe, labor at their own evolution, building
their own brains, refining their subtleties and abilities at
the speed of light.
The robots become more human. The humans become more
robotic? Or is that fair to say? Perhaps the humans become
more human (whatever that means)? Perhaps it is a win-win
situation and both humans and automatons end up feeling good
What do we get when the two forms have developed to
limit (or is there any limit?) of their potential? A
collision of some kind, surely. War? Intermarriage? Perfect
little babies -- beautiful crawlers?
Which life form, the biological or the artificial, will
the more winning personality? Can it be true that humans,
being cranky and irrational, have, for all these years,
stupidly congratulated themselves on the idea that, whatever
their technical imperfections, they have richer
personalities (turbulent with love, laughter, passion, envy,
etc.) than the merely rational/mechanical robot? Maybe, next
to the sleek artificials, we messy biologicals (requiring
deodorants and bathrooms and toilet paper and all the rest)
will grow self-conscious and ashamed.
We cannot see that far. For now, we assume that
self-evolving robots will learn to mimic human traits,
including, eventually, humor. And so, I can't wait to hear
the first joke that one robot tells to another robot.
If any reader can predict what that joke will be, I
delighted to present it to this column's audience, with all
due credit and appropriate rimshots.
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