Amazing what access to a free Glasgow public-library data-base can dig up... As my curator of Nesta's FutureFest comes to a shuddering conclusion (28-29 September, 2013, Shoreditch Town Hall London, be there!), I'm reprinting a piece I wrote for the Guardian Weekend section in 1993, under the editorship of Deborah Orr, exploring my (and our) perennial fascinating with robots.
Over twenty years ago, now - and I'm surprised at my pre-Net, humanistic techno-scepticism (I think, post-Net and the revolution in mind sciences, I'm a wee bit more cyborg myself now). But it's also worth noting that the robotics and AI evangelists have been saying, for decades, "in 20 years time..." And as far as I can see, it's still about 5 years to the self-driving car (though we do have joysticked drones). However, the same anxieties about automation and the status of productive humans still lingers (see MIT's Technology Review edition from earlier this year). I also note that Shadow, the robotics tinkerers I profiled in the piece, are still going strong.
Hope you enjoy - I'm enjoying finding these pieces, more to come. -- PK
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The Man Machines
By Pat Kane
Dreams of automata created in man's own image nestle deep in the human psyche. PAT KANE fantasized about androids from childhood. But a trip into robo-reality turned his fascination into contempt and paranoia
The Guardian, ‘Weekend’, 07 Aug 1993.
THERE was a time when I wanted nothing more than to be a robot. I was between seven and nine years old: that period when your fantasies are as wild and intense as they were in infancy, except that you have developed the ability to marshal facts and figures to firm them up. By night, my finger would inch its way through spine-cracked copies of Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. By day, after school or at weekends, I would get my two brothers - cast as mad, merciless alien scientists - to turn me into a Positronic Man. A Killer Android. A robot.
I remember lying there on the sitting room carpet, as Garry-John and Gregory hauled imaginary intestines and vital organs out of my midriff; sawed through my skull to remove the "useless brain-flesh", pulled out bones and eyes with a sucking sound, and replaced them with titanium struts and video orbs. When they'd finished their evil work, brutally clamping my ripped flesh together with rivets and screw-nuts, my brothers would retire to the settee-cum-control-room, push a few school rulers jammed between cushions to switch me on, and wait.
Even today, I can feel that tingle of absolute self-alienation: rising jerkily but precisely to gaze upon my creators, now whimpering to order on the sofa. And then the sci-fi monotone, rising like a steely taste up through my mouth: I am not a human. I am a robot . . . As I lurched malevolently towards my younger brothers, there was always a point at which the delicious fakery of their play-fear slipped into real anxiety. And I knew I was making myself truly robot-like when I could stop advancing about an inch from their tear-streaked, finger-clawed faces, and break up their trauma by cracking into a big daft smile. "It's only me."
But the power of that moment - and the power of the robot - has never left me, driving a fascination that's filled filing cabinets and bookshelves for over 20 years. I don't think it's left my brothers either. They still recoil from the sight of automata on the screen, whether it's ventriloquist's dummies advancing on their makers in mid-afternoon telly-films, or the latest manipulatory achievement in robot limbs as seen on the nightly news. "That kind of thing gives me the creeps, man . . ." It makes me feel guilty.
Is the robot the classic male technoid fantasy? Historical record would seem to bear this out. In the 1923 play which introduced the term to the English-speaking world, Karel Capek's R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), the smooth running of a robot factory is disrupted by Miss Henrietta Glory of the "Humanity League". She wants rights for robots, wants them to be rebuilt with an emotional "sensitivity". And what do they do with this tender inner dimension? Revolt, kill all humans, and take over the world.
So females bring feelings to the rationally perfect worker, the robot, and it renders them as sadism and aggression. "I don't want any master," says Radius, the librarian robot who leads the rebellion. "I know everything for myself. I want to be master over people."
Capek's automata are obviously a metaphor for Bolshevism. But their psychopathic, power-laden world-view has set the dominant tone for the robot ever since - from the tin-can terrors of the Thirties and Forties, through Hal in 2001 and the Daleks in Doctor Who, to the thick Germanisms of modern big-screen metal men.
You get the gendered picture: the robot as boy's toy - another excrescence of male rationality. And yet, and yet . . . Each time I consign my robophilia to the psychic back cupboard, something comes along to raise it out of the swamps of childhood pathology. A slim book fell into my lap in the mid-Eighties which fused together all my obsessions. Farewell To The Working Class! written by French soixante-huitard and Sartrean confidant Andre Gorz, makes wrist-trembling reading for the sci-fi socialist. "If automation and robotics is able to reduce the amount of wealth-producing, human productive labour that an industrial society needs to an absolute minimum . . . then should we not begin to argue for our liberation from labour, rather than maintain our commitment to full employment and the work society?"
In the last few years, I've almost given up on a robotic revolution ever gaining popular currency. As a dream of technology, it's certainly more substantive than the page turners of my youth - social-science fiction, as it were. But the distance from here to there is so unbridgeable under present conditions - an imploding Europe, sweatshop Britain, and political classes with cataracts - that I'm almost resigned to my techno-socialism as another childish piece of wish-fulfilment.
But robots and politics intertwine in the most unexpected places. Harvard history professor Paul Kennedy devotes a chapter to the forthcoming "robotics revolution" in his recent study, Preparing For The Twenty-First Century. Kennedy judiciously weighs up the facts: automation will massively boost productivity among the developed industrial nations, at the expense of some first world workers and entire national economies in the Third World. The professor leaves us in no doubt as to the essential part that robots will play in 21st century societies, yet his hunch does not lean towards Utopia. Robbie and his offspring will be assisting the competitive advantage of nations, rather than creating a work-free world.
Yet the opportunity to speculate about intelligent machines can stir even the most sober-sided academic. And Kennedy comes up with some lurid new nightmares of his own. How about European robo-racism? "It is conceivable that automation could become part of the European debate over immigration from developing countries," writes Kennedy.
One of the reasons for Japan's status as a "robot kingdom", apart from its acute shortage of labour, has been its deep ethnic fear of the foreign labourer. Silicon "serfs" are just as cheap as human ones, and pose no threat to the "Japanese commitment to racial homogeneity", he speculates. "Will some nationalist politicians in Europe, observing what is happening in Japan, press for similar levels of automation to obviate the need to import guest workers as the workforce shrinks? Will ‘white’ trade unionists prefer robots to working alongside Arabs?"
Our deepest political suspicions are thus confirmed: cheesy horrors like MP Winston Churchill and MEP Jean-Marie Le Pen are actually renegade androids, hellbent on techno-totalitarian domination of the entire continent. That's not much less likely than Kennedy's scenario. See what the slightest touch of technofear can do to the greyest of history professors? We're back to living-room carpets and evil-doing droids.
Of course, the robots at Glasgow's Turing Institute weren't working. Some "reconfigurations of parameters" had turned their micro-mice and biped walkers into useless benchwork. I'd visited the Institute (named after the father of computing science, Alan Turing) because it is organising the second International Robot Games in Glasgow in September - a boffin's olympics intended, according to the local authority blurb, to be "a great boost to innovative industry" in the city.
But no robots. The Institute's Mr MacFarlane gave me a pile of of robot research videos to plough through instead, with appetising titles like "Legged Locomotion" and "Robotics On The Battlefield", assuring me that some of the featured machines would be performing at the games.
They seem vaguely like pornography. Formally, you can barely tell the difference - the shaky camerawork and video blurring, the flat Santa-Monican voiceover and 50-cent electro soundtrack. But the content is almost there as well. Groups of men in wrinkled shirts are standing in a room, watching the spasmodic convulsions of an entity called Julie III. She is tied to cables suspended from the ceiling: occasionally one of the spectators will try to knock her over or force her to stop. But the infernal thing keeps going, filling its allotted two minutes in the video show, compulsively repeating its actions - hopping, scuttling, climbing, flipping over - for the viewer's pleasure.
Marvin Minsky, robot-guru, has said that when we create fully autonomous, fully cognitive androids, we might have to be prepared for the first 100 of them to be insane. Watching these inelegant lumps of technology blunder around their laboratories, one is struck by the truth of Minsky's prediction. It's like watching patients in a hospital for severe mental illness; the robots huddle in corners, inch round walls, shake violently as they negotiate obstacles.
The breathless commentaries - vaunting each new advance in "sensor-perception technology" - make you feel a pang of sympathy for these ungainly harbingers of the future. Leave then alone, let them go back where they came from. But they come from us; products of human reason's attempts to penetrate the secrets of nature.
Out of all the crude simulations of natural complexity that human science has managed, the robot is the only one (so far) that's made us feel truly Creator-like. It's out there, beyond us, but not of nature; it's moving, reacting, progressing - artificial life, right there on the lab floor. But look at what it's doing, how sad it is: this is pornography, all right, but at a very basic level. It's a sick fetishisation of life itself; in order that we may know ourselves, or ease our labours, we let a pathetically limited metal insect know the merest spark of perception and intention, and watch it flail and fail forever.
If robots and computers are "mind children", in the words of MIT's fundamentalist Hans Moravec, the question is: are we helping them to grow and develop as legitimate organisms? Or are we abusing a mutant offspring from the start?
"I think we would be open to the charge that making these robots is like men having babies," says David Buckley of the Shadow Project, a back-room robotics workshop, secreted behind blank premises in London. "But we make a point of calling our robots it, not he or she," interjects Richard Sighthill, Buckley's partner and a photographer by day. "Because they're not humans, we want to keep that idea clear. The idea of rights for machines is simply stupid. A machine is just a machine."
DOWNSTAIRS, the object of our discussion hangs inertly from the ceiling. It's not working today either. Shadow Walker is a seven-foot-high bipedal robot, made by Sighthill and Buckley in their spare time. If a TV drama department wanted to mock-up a prop for the ultimate garden-shed invention, they couldn't do better than this. Outrageously, it seems to be mostly made of bevelled table legs and plywood. At its back are a wall of pressure gauges that make it seem more relevant to Flash Gordon than the age of the smart machine.
It looks at first sight like an embarrassing attempt to drape a frame in ersatz musculature, with plastic netting and rubber tubes. But it turns out to be the gadget that they're launching during the Glasgow Robot Games. It is, in fact, a simulated muscle, with sensors that can react to all surfaces in a flexible manner. In action, the "Digit" is underwhelming - a stretch of dull balloon-plastic being briefly inflated. But, I am told, it will make robotics accessible to schools and amateurs. "Make your own biped in three days from Meccano or Lego!" pipes Richard. "Hobby robotics is here!"
The Shadow project has one blindingly clear aim, unfussed by considerations of big sponsors (they don't have one) or moral considerations (they're doing stuff for disabled groups rather than the military). They want to make the "domestic robot" of cack-fiction fame that whizzes round the house, saving the hard-worked info-couple at least four hours a day in housework, costing the same as a family car. The universities and industries sneer at such mundaneness, "but we're immune to everything," says Richard. "If our own health keeps up, we'll eventually do it."
But isn't this the ultimate vindication of the despair at the heart of Capek's neologism - robot as slave to human; and humans desiring, always, to be slaved after? Richard: "But I want a slave!" Gulp. David: "All the really great civilisations have been based on slavery, where the population has had time to devote itself to high affairs because all the menial tasks were being done by the slaves."
"Slavery was great looked at from one side, and was unspeakably awful looked at from the other side," says Richard, opining at the standard level of ethical crudeness among scientists. "The interesting thing about robots is that they present mankind with a scenario where exploitation of other people is no longer necessary. Maybe some people like exploiting, I don't know." The labour-saving, time-eating impulse is admirable in these two, but their vocabulary sends me blinking furiously back into the twilight.
I've seen a few automated factories in my time, catching them on open days in various parts of the world. A sub-contracting fabrication plant in Italy's Emilia-Romagna was like a smaller version of that late Seventies Fiat advert - the one where robot arms constructed a car, "designed by humans, built by robots", to the sounds of grand opera. A generation suddenly found its hazy sci-fi mythologies snapping into focus.
A few years later, a nervous young ex-Brigadier gave me a different line. "Oh, those Fiat ads were ideological. Remember Italy's `hot summers', all those Autonomists fomenting wildcat strikes in the early Seventies? Italian industry, with Fiat at the head, started to bring in automation as a response to this kind offspring militancy. They've had to scale down their automated ambitions since, of course - but that advert for the Fiat factory was a piece of counter-propaganda. We don't need you rebels, they were saying."
I saw the perfect image of the almost workerless factory at part of the IBM plant in Spango Valley, Greenock, in the late Eighties: a room of pin-point-precise arms in glass cases, tidily punching circuit boards for later assembly. But IBM have settled into the Scottish West Coast with less evident social struggle; the tour guide reminded us of the company's jobs-for-life commitment, "not only to humans, but to robots as well".
So I made a return call. "We don't use them now," said the man from Human Relations. "Sold some to the local technical college." Dumbstruck, I asked why. "Well, our customers began to want their computers more customised - tailored to individual needs. We looked at the robots, compared the cost of reprogramming them with the performance of the average human worker . . . and went back to humans. Much cheaper and more efficient."
The next week was a frustrating trawl through a list of British companies using robots. I was battered around a bewildering hierarchy of names and officials, the patent lack of assistance making me feel like my name had been entered on a "subversive list". If Paul Kennedy's diagnosis of the growing centrality of robots to capitalist competitiveness ever needed proving, then the protective secrecy of the industrial robotic sector would be adequate material.
My final call, to a shadowy organisation in Kilwinning, summed it all up. The first official was streaming pride: "Yes, we have all kinds of robotics, lift-and-lay, visual checking, some Japanese Fanuc machines . . . It doesn't put people out of work, you know. That's a myth!" A few hours later, a second official phones. "No pictures, no reporting, no quotation. We can't let any of our competitors even see what we might be using. I've been to the very top man."
It could be said that the robot is a cranky, even slightly anachronistic symbol these days. Doesn't the whole movement of "cyberpunk" consign Ol' Light-Bulb Eyes - or even his useful cousin, Mr Industrial Pick 'n' Place - to the trash compacter? Cyberpunk is a literary trend in sci-fi, dating from about 1981, and defined neatly by the new Encyclopaedia Of Science Fiction. It concerns "a future in which machine augmentations of the human body are commonplace, as are mind and body changes brought about by drugs and biological engineering".
So novelists like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling are uninterested in morality tales of human-versus-machine, dramatised by lumbering tin menaces of yore. It's humans-as-machines that fascinates these writers. "We're interested in sticky technology, stuff that gets under your skin," says Sterling. "We may be moving into a post-human age," drawls Gibson. "When intelligent machines promise immortality for humans, by containing our consciousnesses as programs, then why hang on to flesh? I feel an elegiac sadness about it, but I really think we're on the way out."
Robot and computer scientists from the wilder end of the spectrum - like Hans Moravec and Marvin Minsky - claim cyberpunk as prophecy. "Every couple of years I read William Gibson's 1984 novel Neuromancer, and every time I find that something he's written about has become scientific reality," said the white-coated Joseph Rosen of the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Centre.
The ingredients of Cyberpunk are a rich mixture of the practical and the mystical; innumerable copies of our selves on discs, the removal of emotion and need from daily life, coasting cyberspace like digital surfers . . . These are visions far grander than our petty dreams of robot housemaids and android butlers.
"Really, the robot has been a bit of a disappointment," says JG Ballard. In his headier sci-fi days, Ballard eschewed Asimov-type melodramas, featuring angst-ridden androids worrying over their potential "humanity". "That kind of thing is a terrible sentimentalising of technology. Robotics is the moral degradation of the machine. Why do we want machines to be like us anyway? It's much more likely that we'll be like machines in the future."
Well, exactly. And that kind of future might be the best reason for hanging on to the robot as a metaphor for our relationship with technology. For at least the robot-image contains a little alienation about it. What we embody in the traditional image of the robot is our mistrust of machines and science, or at least our need to harness their powers rather than surrender to them. Capek coined "robot" from the Czech robota - meaning serf, or forced labour - to give his fantasy drama all the resonances of industrial struggle. But Capek's anxiety about keeping technology in its subordinate place - subordinate, that is, to the needs of human society - is also captured in the figure of the robot. If we feel robotics as a threat, that's exactly as it should be.
It's our justifiable anxiety about technology that's completely lost in cyberpunk, and the whole accompanying Sega-rave culture of computer games and technoid music. The TV advert for Sega expresses this premature state of electronic bliss perfectly; the blue-eyed joystick operator metamorphoses, game by game, into a metallic insect-robot juddering itself into a binary-driven frenzy.
There are a few richly satisfying conspiracy theories around to justify this slack-jawed state of human (or post-human) affairs. Try this one for size. In order that the real robots - those in factories, not in adverts - can work solely for the interests of Big Business, rather than for the workers they displace, there has to be a pacifying ideology for these de-industrialised millions.
Therefore, Cyberpunk is the latest and greatest opium for the masses. How can you challenge the machine if you are being encouraged to love it, to subsume your self into it? "Clear and distinct people may be necessary for an industrial economy, based on the sale of labour power," says US academic Bill Nichols. "But a higher priority for a post-industrial economy may be mutually dependent cyborgs." The very idea of the individual - with all its ancient dilemmas of free-will versus determinism - may only be "a trace of traditions that are no longer pertinent."
So believe all the scare stories about a computer-junkie generation, parents; your child is being shaped by the culture industries to fit into the New Cybernetic Order. Pull the junk out of the wall; lock 'em indoors; feed 'em Picador Classics, early Clash albums, anything that'll remind them that there is no such thing as cyberspace. Would you want a dry-eyed flesh-robot as comfort for your old age?
Our historical relationship with the robot has been one long oscillation between lust and loathing. But better, surely, that this sine-wave of repulsion and attraction remains tense, nervous and headache-inducing. The quasi-spirituality and dreamy adolescence of cyberpunk is a kind of caving-in to forces we should be trying to control. And neither a demonisation of the robot (General Ludd rides again) nor its canonisation (the post-industrial panacea) will help us face the coming Robotic Age maturely. "No robotisation without representation" may well sound like techno-socialism by the back door. But must we learn nothing between each Industrial Revolution?
We can take control of our gleaming Homunculi, these extraordinary products of human reason. Or we can be happy with our idle fantasies of tin men and cyborg souls. An unfashionable injunction: it's time to choose what we want from these golden arms, legs and brains. Let's look clearly at the robot, as our ineluctable, inescapable, and possibly emancipatory future. And tear the mirrorshades from our eyes.
The only robot that the British robotics community managed to get working before my eyes was the Shadow project's balsa-and-rubber pianist, a cat's cradle of pneumatic muscles and brass hinges, prodding out blocks of notes on a Sanyo kids' organ. Richard Holloway corrected it constantly as it split notes, soured chords, and was finally pulled away from the keyboard: playing into air, skilful but futile. Kurt Vonnegut's early-Fifties sci-fi novel Player Piano came immediately to mind: its central metaphor of an automatic bar piano representing the stupidity of technology as an end in itself.
Look how it's all going, 40 years on. Not automation replacing humanity, but humanity helping it to play the rudiments of Frere Jacques. I'm watching this piece of robotic presumption, and despite my contempt I find my fingers twitching involuntarily. So that's how it would be, to be a robot . . . But no more man machine dreams. Being a human will do.
The Second International Robot Games will be at Glasgow's Royal Concert Hall, September 23-25