Why Science Needs Fiction

–Introducing the Social Robot Futures website

By Teresa Heffernan

Scientists working in artificial intelligence and robotics often comment on the inspiration they draw from fiction. Yet what role do literature and film play when it comes to questions about the future of the industry, social policy, and ethics? Social Robot Futures is a place that takes seriously the feedback loop between science and the humanities, and that restores fiction to the industry of robotics and AI. It opens up a space to imagine this technology as untethered by questions of profit or military funding. 

“Attitudes, religious beliefs, personality traits, and social habits—information on all of these can be the subject of a questionnaire to be filled out when a human orders a robot, or it could be acquired by the robot in the course of the conversation. Once the robot’s memory has acquired all necessary information about its human, the robot will be able to emulate sufficient of the human’s stated personality characteristics to create a meaningful level of similarity.” David Levy, Love and Sex with Robots (2007)

References to fictional robots are scattered throughout articles and books on artificial intelligence as designers of social robots and ethicists mine the rich array of “humanized” machines that have populated literature and film both for their imaginative richness and as a way of explaining and marketing their mission to the public. For instance, Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics” are often cited in scientific articles; and social robot engineer Cynthia Breazeal, director of the Personal Robots Group at Media Lab at MIT, designs robots inspired by her love of C-3PO and R2-D2; while Amit Singhal, a software engineer and vice-president at Google, wants this web search engine “to become that perfect Star Trek computer.” But when it comes to “serious” discussions about the future of robots and AI, fiction is relegated to the background as the “truth” of science, steered by corporate interests, takes over.

The cost of this bracketing of fiction is enormous. As Nietzsche argued, in the aftermath of the rise of science, our over emphasis on cognition disconnects us from the sensual world. Our anthropomorphic arrogance blinds us to the heterogeneity of nature, to the limits and fragility of the human intellect–a recent intrusion on an ancient planet. We must strip out all the complexities of the world and the singularity of experience, already narrowed by subjectivity, in order to produce the “objective” world of science. The problems begin when we then confuse those necessarily reductive models and abstractions with a dynamic fluid reality. Literature reminds of us this reality—the trace of it is found in the particularity of stories, while the elaborate creative architecture we have constructed on the “moving foundations” of the real is openly acknowledged.

When science hives itself off from the reminder of this fiction, we design robots and AI that mimic “models” of human and non-human animals; the abstraction then stands in for the reality; the model is taken for the animal/human and vice versa as the world shrinks ino translatable codes and interchangeable bits of information: algorithms, genes, DNA, neural networks. Emotions first become something we can “talk” about, then become something we can diagnose and medicate, and then become something we can replicate: for instance, the dissected muscular structure of a human expression enabled by face-tracking software gets translated—via programs and motors–into a robotic “happy” or “sad face.” Simulating emotion, the robotic face, with additions like big eyes and floppy ears, triggers human programming; the face is real enough to elicit a human response. Encouraging human-robot “friendships” by building machines with “personalities” is a booming business and attracts big money as the many well-funded robotics labs around the world suggest (Kismet, The Robot).

These robots are marketed as comforting, helpful, and accommodating. They are designed to service us—fight our wars, take care of the elderly and children, perform menial tasks, think for us; and cater to our wants and needs—sexual, emotional, and physical. Dreaming of slaves, we are re-designed by a technology that promises to fulfill our every already commodified desire, reduced to check boxes on a questionnaire. In this “safe,” comfortable bubble, protected from the complexities of the real, humans cannot but grow helpless and needy like the morbidly obese humans floating around in space in Wall-E or like the hollowed out, narcissistic, and achingly earnest hipster, Theodore, who inhabits the sterile semi-futuristic city in Her.

Forgetting what Nietzsche refers to as “the primitive world of metaphor,” scientific language turns the world into a model, but then threatens to mistake this model for the real. As this shrunken world grows solid and rigid, we are cut off from the “hot, liquid stream” of imagination. The future is forced in one direction and the open-ended multi-directional ambivalence of fiction is foreclosed. Social Robot Futures is a place to figure the world differently; it wants to restore the vitality–that gets lost when the field is funded by the military and dominated by corporate interests–to the world of robots, AI, and humans.