A Brief History Of Botting
Nowhere are the complexities of human interactions with the technologies we develop more evident than in the field of robotics. In the inexorable march of progress, the notion of a mechanized version of ourselves falling into step alongside us — with the potential to surpass us in ways we can only begin to imagine — generates both ecstatic hope and paroxysmal anxiety. Even in its earliest iterations, the term robot, arising from a Czech word meaning “forced labor”, carried some heavy baggage.
Although the modern concept of robotics traces its roots back a mere hundred years or so, representations of manufactured beings and fabricated automata appear throughout the pages of recorded history. Among the oldest known automatons are the mythological statue of Pygmalion and a clockwork dove designed by Archytas of Tarentum around 350 B.C.E., which is described as having flown as far as 200 meters. And long before the chess-playing hoax known as the Turk created a furore in the Viennese court, the mechanical monk commissioned by 16th-century Spanish monarch Phillip II was demonstrating the proper sequence of religious devotions.
In the modern era, industrial machines have fomented discord on factory floors, giving rise to union calls to prevent the loss of blue-collar workers' livelihoods. And at the dawn of the new millennium, automated systems seem poised to supplant or render obsolete an astonishing repertoire of human accomplishments. No longer confined to the realm of fantasy and science fiction, robotic creations are so intimately woven into the fabric of our lives that we think nothing of giving them cutesy names and entrusting them with aspects of our children's social development.
Celluloid Droids And Crises Of Conscience
Proclamations from the greatest minds in science and technology have raised not only our hopes for the future of robotics (think airborne fleets of self-driving vehicles), but also the disturbing spectre of AI and machine-learning run amok. While soft robotics may offer the promise of benign and infinitely patient inflatables like Baymax (the huggable “personal healthcare assistant” of Disney’s Big Hero 6), we can't ignore the scarier products of our imaginations like those that terrorize — and radically alter the fortunes of — the Aliens and Terminator franchises' protagonists, or the characters' troubling predicaments in such films as Her and Ex Machina.
As fraught as it is storied, the cinematic journey of robots — from the clunky artifice of Robby the Robot and the mindlessly menacing Cybermen of Dr. Who infamy to the touching, aspirational humanity of A.I.'s David and android Andrew Martin in Bicentennial Man — offers intriguing insights into human nature and the ways we engage with technology. Watching these fictional dilemmas and existential crises play out is a profoundly uncomfortable experience because it's impossible not to feel empathy for both the humans and the anthropomorphic machines that (who?) share the screen with them.
Perhaps even more unsettling are the enigmatic Synths of AMC’s Humans and the robotic Hosts of HBO’s Westworld series, which (who?) leave us grappling with the very crux of our existence. What does it mean to be sentient, how do we define consciousness, and is the term artificial intelligence itself nothing more than an egocentric social construct? Should we be talking instead about alternative or applied intelligence? Whether they’re wiping our tears and fighting for justice or waging cybernetic warfare to wipe the human stain from our planet, these on-screen portrayals of humanoid robots touch at the heart of the human condition.
Gyros And Servos And Actuators, Oh My!
In spite of the extraordinary progress we've already made toward bringing something like Isaac Asimov's positronic brain to life, as it were, the road ahead is a treacherous one — littered with innumerable ethical quandaries, ideological issues, and unforeseen consequences. But for the glass-half-full crowd, there's plenty of cause for optimism. Recent developments in neural networks offer the promise of touch-sensitive prosthetics, which could significantly improve quality of life for amputees and paralytics, not to mention making mundane tasks like stirring sauces and stacking boxes a lot less odious.
Young children can now learn the basics of coding through interactions with programmable robot toys, and new applications for home automations and the so-called Internet of Things emerge on a daily basis. Computer-operated devices are now responsible for a dizzying assortment of mundane and repetitive tasks. They're patrolling and tidying our floors, sucking up detritus from our suburban swimming pools, simplifying meal preparation, and teaching communication skills. We're even invited to take the idea of embracing technology quite literally — snuggling up to it to help us sleep. What were once fantastical luxuries for the wealthy and privileged are increasingly accessible to the middle class.
While the apparent suicidal tendencies of a security droid may raise some worrisome questions, and living cogs in the industrial machine get understandably fidgety at the prospect of losing their jobs to actual drones, there’s no denying the appeal of a world in which package delivery doesn’t depend entirely on armies of living carriers braving snow, rain, heat and dark of night in the swift completion of their appointed rounds.