Time for Robot Fiction to go hard

Hello and Welcome. This blog is about robot technology, present and near future. If you love robots, please join the conversation.

Robots have been a mainstay of science fiction since its early days, and now they are here. Today’s robots, however, are nothing like the robots of fiction. It turns out that building functional humanoid robots — androids — is unimaginably hard. Even in a world churning with mind-boggling new technologies, humanoid robots are still in a rudimentary stage of development. This blog is an exploration of the technologies required to bring advanced androids to life. At the very least, this will included the mechanical technologies and advanced materials that will go into chassis design, and the A.I. and neuromorphic/neuromimetic computing technologies that will control those chassis.  I will also explore some of the ethical questions we need to be considering before we actually succeed, and the social implications of success.

Science fiction has always been a powerful way to explore the landscapes of possible futures. Many people equate “hard sci-fi” with dry and heavy technical descriptions, and unless they loved science class in school, expect not to like it. But “hard sci-fi” need not be dry. In fact, the whole notion of “hard science” has lost its meaning in recent years. At its core, all science is fuzzy. The traditionally hard sciences like physics, chemistry and math, have all come to accept the fundamental uncertainty that permeates existence. The traditionally “soft” sciences, on the other hand, like psychology and the social sciences, now employ rigorous scientific methods to investigate areas once thought to be unquantifiable, such as consciousness, happiness and love. Yes, there really is a serious science of love. As a result of these changes, “hard” science fiction now encompasses the full range of human experience.

Hard sci-fi can best be appreciated as a contrast to “fantasy” simply because it presents worlds and ideas that are scientifically plausible, unlike, say, dragons, sorcerers, vampires and zombies. Hard and soft science fiction , on the other hand, are not discrete things, but rather exist on a continuum, ranging from hard to soft. The more scientifically plausible the technology, the “harder” the science. Teleportation, faster-than-light travel and time travel are all, for now, implausible, and introduce a fantasy element into a story, softening it. The same is true, historically, of androids that are indistinguishable from humans. My upcoming novel, The Mechanism Me, pushes android consciousness into the hard end of the spectrum, while remaining a deeply human story.

While much of science fiction takes us to distant worlds and times, it is the near future that most interests some of us. We can not predict what the future will be like, but we can certainly have fun speculating. Fifty years from now we will not have dragons, but barring a catastrophe, we will most certainly have robots. They won’t magically or mysteriously be just like us. They will have to be painstakingly designed and constructed to be that way, and a tremendous amount of work is being done to give us a realistic blueprint for success. It is this work that will be our focus here.

But do we really want that success? This is one of the traditional questions that science-fiction has helped us explore. I am currently working on a robot trilogy that brings this question into modern focus, something that becomes increasingly urgent as technology surges ahead. There is still time to shape the future. Please contribute by adding your voice.

If you are interested in these topics, I suggest reading these blog entries in the order in which they were written, as they build on each other.