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.