In Alex Proyas’s I, Robot, a relatively recent science fiction neo-noir film, Spooner, the noir detective tasked to solve the suspected murder of a brilliant scientist and robotics expert in the not-too-distant future, hates robots. The reason? When he was involved in a car accident some time before, he was rescued from his sinking car by a robot, who ignored a young girl in the other car which was also sinking fast.

To Spooner, this was proof that robots could never be true human simulacra, because the robot’s “decision” to save his life rather than the girl’s was based on a calculation that Spooner’s chances of survival were better than the girl’s, given their injuries. As far as Spooner was concerned, this was a clear indication that robots have no heart, no feelings, but only programmed logic. They were, and always would be, machines.

In the film, Spooner would soon have to deal with an entirely new generation of robots, at least one of which – Sonny – would even be capable of feeling guilty for something it/he did. In social reality today, humans will probably soon have to learn how to live with the first generation of robots that are capable of doing what the older generations of robots do in I, Robot, namely, to serve humans at all levels of social life. And already these robots are being programmed in such a way that they simulate feelings.

As I have indicated before ( in a post on the book Alone Together by a scholar familiar with the philosophy of technology, Sherry Turkle, she has grave misgivings about the direction advanced technology is going, including the development of robotics. Her main misgiving is that people are increasingly interposing screens of various kinds between themselves and other people, instead of interacting in a face-to-face manner. Even when sitting together at home or in restaurants, their smartphones, IPads or tablets preoccupy them to such an extent that no conversation seems to take place.

Moreover, when a young woman approached her at a conference with the question, whether a robot had been developed which could be a companion and lover to her (because her boyfriend was driving her up the wall), Turkle realized that something was going seriously wrong. When a person expresses a preference for a machine whose functioning, no matter how life-like, is the result of programming, instead of being willing to cope with the complexities of a relationship with another human being, she believes that a line has been crossed that does not augur well for the human race.

The time when individuals will be able to exercise that choice, no matter how disconcerting it may be, could be closer than one tends to think. Judging from an article by Chris Carroll, titled Robots get Real (in the August 2011 edition of National Geographic), the process of developing robots that are able to carry out instructions or requests from human beings, is already well under way in both Japan and the US. In robotics departments at these universities students face the task, under the guidance of their robotics professors, of making robots appear more human in the way they move and speak – yes, speak, because the Actroid DER android built by the Japanese Kokoro Company, can converse with people at a rudimentary level, and “can be rented to serve as a futuristic spokesmodel at corporate events.”

“The Actroid androids,” Carroll continues, “are part of a new generation of robots, artificial beings designed to function not as programmed industrial machines but as increasingly autonomous agents capable of taking on roles in our homes, schools, and offices previously carried out by humans.” This statement sounds like a description of the fictional robots in “I, Robot”, where Spooner is the exception to the rule of people trusting and depending on robots for performing the menial tasks they were built for. And now this fictional scenario is taking shape around us, at a rate which prompted Reid Simmons, professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University in the US, to observe: “In five or ten years robots will routinely be functioning in human environments”.

In addition to the Japanese Actroid androids, Carroll also discusses the development of “service bots” such as HERB, a “Home Exploring Robotic Butler,” being developed by Carnegie Mellon in partnership with Intel Labs Pittsburgh, as a prototype robot intended to care for disabled and elderly people. What differentiates between HERB and older robots like those programmed to construct cars in automobile factories (sometimes performing precision tasks like spot-welding) is HERB’s ability to “dream,” as his designer at Carnegie Mellon, Professor Srinivasa, calls it.

This involves comparing thousands of possible scenarios of ways to manipulate objects, archived in its memory, to carry out an instruction correctly – such as picking up a teacup, or a box, which requires a different approach in each case. What humans do intuitively, once they have mastered certain motor skills, HERB has to work through painstakingly, “taking in information and processing it intelligently in the context of everything he already knows about what his world looks like,” as “his” builder explains. (HERB is categorized as a “he”, because he is described as being “kind of beefy” in appearance.)

“Snackbot,” another service bot being developed by Carnegie Mellon, has the task of taking orders from, and delivering them to staff and students at the School of Computer Science. He has been programmed to warn them about his imperfections, to avoid annoyance when he makes mistakes with orders and change. Interestingly, Snackbot’s features are “cartoonish”, apparently as a deliberate understatement of human features – deliberate, because Japanese robotics-pioneer, Masahiro Mori, discovered years ago that one should avoid what he called the “uncanny valley,” or the point at which a vaguely anthropomorphic robot ceases to be “cute” and becomes repulsive because they approximate human appearance too closely without actually attaining it.

However, not all robotics experts shy away from the “uncanny valley,” a case in point being Hiroshi Ishiguro of Kyoto, Japan, who has created Actroid DER, among his many other innovative robotic constructions. The latter include his own twin robot, identical in appearance to himself, which he uses as a double, mimicking his actions back in Kyoto when he teaches in Osaka.

Ishiguro is one of those technologists who believes that performance is everything. Once the point has been reached where one can no longer tell the difference between human and machine as far as performance and appearance are concerned, it would not really matter whether one is interacting with a person or a machine. Sherry Turkle, for one, would disagree. A person has an inner life, a personal history, past experiences of pleasure and pain; machines do not, and in principle cannot, have such experiences.

Anyone interested in a more thorough-going treatment of this theme in relation to science fiction, can read my paper, “When robots would really be human simulacra: Love and the ethical in Spielberg’s AI and Proyas’s I, Robot.” Film-Philosophy 12 (2), September 2008.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

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