Talking to Robots: Tales from Our Human-Robot Futures

Talking to Robots: Tales from Our Human-Robot Futures

by David Ewing Duncan


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Award-winning journalist David Ewing Duncan considers 24 visions of possible human-robot futures—Incredible scenarios from Teddy Bots to Warrior Bots, and Politician Bots to Sex Bots—Grounded in real technologies and possibilities and inspired by our imagination.

What robot and AI systems are being built and imagined right now? What do they say about us, their creators? Will they usher in a fantastic new future, or destroy us? What do some of our greatest thinkers, from physicist Brian Greene and futurist Kevin Kelly to inventor Dean Kamen, geneticist George Church, and filmmaker Tiffany Shlain, anticipate about our human-robot future? For even as robots and A.I. intrigue us and make us anxious about the future, our fascination with robots has always been about more than the potential of the technology–it’s also about what robots tell us about being human.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781524743598
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/16/2019
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 323,751
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

David Ewing Duncan is an award-winning science journalist in print, television, and radio; and the best-selling author of nine books published in 21 languages. He is Curator of Arc Fusion, a recent columnist for the Daily Beast, and a frequent contributor to Wired, Vanity Fair, MIT Technology Review, The New York Times, Atlantic, and others. He has also written for Fortune, National GeographicDiscover, Life, Outside, and Newsweek. He is a former commentator for NPR's Morning Edition, and a special correspondent and producer for ABC’s Nightline. His book Calendar was a bestseller in 14 countries; he also wrote the bestseller Experimental Man. David’s work has won numerous awards, including Magazine Story of the Year from AAAS. David [PE1] lives in San Francisco, where he is a member of the San Francisco Writer’s Grotto, a writer’s society.

Read an Excerpt



When the Robots Arrived


In the future we will all remember when the robots truly arrived. Everyone will have their story. Some will be revelatory, recalled as a rush of excitement that a robot could do that thing that was so vitally important to us. Perhaps a robot surgeon saved the life of someone dear to you. Or you had mind-blowing sex with the robo-date of your dreams. And how can you forget when that robot broker used AI-quantum mumbo jumbo to net you a tidy sum on the Pyongyang stock exchange, allowing you to pay for your daughter's master's degree-in robotics?


For others, their first true robot experience will be like getting the best toy ever: a mega-bot loaded with games, jokes, travel suggestions, advice in love, holographic telephones-a robot that's funny and wise and, quite possibly, sexy, like the voice of Scarlett Johansson in the movie Her. Or maybe your inaugural robot moment will be more banal. An instant when you realize with relief that the machines have taken over all the tasks and responsibilities that used to be super annoying-taking out the trash, changing diapers, paying bills, and vacuuming those hard-to-reach places in your (robot-driven) car.


Possibly your recollection will be less benign, a memory of when a robot turned against you. The #%$! machine that swiped your job. The robot IRS agent that threatened to seize your bank assets over a tax dispute. The robo-judge that decided against you in a lawsuit with a former business partner that also happened to be a robot, making you wonder if all these robots are secretly working in cahoots.


You might also remember when the robots began campaigning for equal rights with humans and for an end to robot slavery, abuse, and exploitation. Or when robots became so smart that they ceased to do what we asked them and became our benign overlords, treating us like cute and not very bright pets. Or when the robots grew tired of us and decided to destroy us, turning our own robo-powered weapons of mass destruction against us, which we hoped was just a bad dream-a possible future scenario discussed in the early twenty-first century by the likes of Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX. "AI is a fundamental existential risk for human civilization," Musk once said, adding that AI is "potentially more dangerous than nukes." Great news coming from a guy who made AI-powered cars and spaceships.


Those of you living in the present day can be forgiven if you feel a bit antsy about the whole existential risk thing, even as you continue to love, love, love your technology as it whisks you across and over continents and oceans at thirty-five thousand feet, and also brews you decent triple-shot cappuccinos with extra foam at just the push of a button. It summons you rides in someone else's Kia Soul or Chevy Volt that hopefully doesn't smell funny, and it connects you online with that cute chestnut-haired girl you had a crush on in sixth grade whose current-day pics you "like" but are careful not to "love," because that would be a little weird after all these years.


Yet deep down, many people living in the early 2000s-known as the Early Robot Era (ERE)-feared that a robo-apocalypse wasn't off the table for the future. This despite reassurances from tech elites like Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg. "I'm really optimistic," Zuckerberg has said about the future. "People who are naysayers and kind of try to drum up these doomsday scenarios-I just, I don't understand it." To which Elon Musk replied, "I've talked to Mark about this. His understanding of the subject is limited."


Further into the future we will remember when robots became organic, created in a lab from living tissue, cells, and DNA to look and be just like us, but better and more resilient. Even further out in time we will recall when we first had the option of becoming robots ourselves, by downloading our minds and our essences into organic-engineered beings that could theoretically live forever. Some of us will remember being thrilled by the prospect of having a synthetic or organometallic body that's young and sleek and impervious to aging.


Our new robot-bodies will allow us to do amazing things, like not have our DNA torn to shreds by cosmic radiation while traveling into space. With the proper upgrades, we will also be able to swim submersible-free in the Mariana Trench more than six miles under the surface of the sea without drowning or being crushed by tons of water pressure. Maybe we'll do the breaststroke in oceans of liquid methane on Titan, just because we can. And yet . . . will we feel that something is missing as the millennia pass? Will we grow weary of being robots, invulnerable and immortal? Will we feel a nostalgia for the time before that moment long ago when we first realized that the robots had truly arrived?





Some people in the present day think that the coming of AI and robots will be as impactful as the advent of fire, agriculture, the wheel, steam engines, electricity, and the internet. Others think that the emergence of robots and AI is overhyped. That robots of the sort we're imagining are still far off in the future and will be very different from what we're conjuring in our brains. These robo-skeptics wonder if so-called artificial intelligence is really just part of a steady progression of computers becoming ever more powerful and ubiquitous, and that this invention-of-the-wheel moment is occurring gradually, without any sort of definitive "Eureka!" moment as we realize that hey, will you look at that! I can order catnip and toilet paper online. And wow! Is it really true that a thirteen-inch MacBook Pro has the RAM and processing speed to manage a small city, or perhaps guide a modest-size spaceship to Mars?


Humans in the present day seem obsessed with robots, real and imagined, as we embrace dueling visions of robo-utopias and robo-dystopias that titillate, bring hope, and scare the bejesus out of us. Possibly the very speed and whoosh of technological newness is contributing to our insistence on anthropomorphizing every machine in sight. We imagine a dishwashing robot that looks like Rosie from The Jetsons, or a cop that chases replicants looking like Ryan Gosling in Blade Runner 2049. Making these machines seem more like us makes them less scary-or sometimes scarier, like the pissed-off killer bots in Westworld that go berserk and start killing every human in sight.


This isn't too far removed from ancient Greeks and others, who created gods that looked and acted like us mortals in matters of love, lust, envy, fury, and who has the biggest lightning bolt. This humanization made their awesome power over the sun, wind, water, love, crops, and war seem more familiar and less terrifying. Or maybe we just let our human egos run wild and can't imagine an all-powerful god or alien, or a robot, not looking and acting like us. It's far more likely that a dishwasher bot will look like, well, a dishwasher, with perhaps a couple of robotic arms to pick up and load dirty coffee mugs and cutlery. Likewise, in 2049, a real-life version of Gosling's character, "K," would more likely resemble present-day military robots that operate on four legs and look like metallic dogs than blade-running hunks on a stick that have holographic girlfriends, grow three-day beards, and cry real tears. But you never know.





This book is a brief guide to possible future scenarios about robots, real and imagined. Mostly it's told by an unnamed narrator from the future who seems to know all about robots and AI, both in the present day and in future decades, centuries, and millennia-and sometimes even in future myrlennia (millions of years) and byrlennia (billions of years). At times, our narrator visits us in the present day to tell us what might be happening in the future. The narrator seems to know about alternate futures, too, describing scenarios for some bots in which things turn out wonderful. In others, not so much. Most scenarios that feature different bots in this narrative are also informed by interviews in the present day with actual engineers, scientists, artists, philosophers, futurists, and others. They share with us their ideas, hopes, and fears about what's real today with sex bots, doc bots, warrior bots, and more, and also their thoughts and forecasts about how things might turn out in the future.


Talking to Robots blends reporting on real robots and AI systems plus quotes from real people with imagined scenarios of where these robots might take us in the near future and, in some cases even further out future. To tell these tales from our human-robot futures, the narrator uses a made-up tense called the "near-future present." This allows the reader to experience things that may occur in the future as if they are happening right now; or from the perspective of a person living in the future for whom the events of the present day happened long ago, and with the knowledge of how things actually turned out.


For the purpose of this narrative, let's define the words "robot" and "bot"-particularly for you engineers out there who hotly debate what, exactly, a robot or a bot is and complain about people misusing your carefully nuanced definition. For this book, the words "robot" and "bot" are the broadest sort of descriptors for smart machines and machine systems of all kinds, real and imagined, anthropomorphic and not. They run the gamut from a smart toaster and the Robot on Lost in Space to the organic bots in Westworld and Ryan Gosling's holographic girlfriend in Blade Runner 2049. They also include smart coffeemakers, social media algorithms, chat boxes, swarming killer drones, and apps that tell us where the nearest Starbucks is; plus those giant robot arms that attach car doors to the bodies of automobiles in a factory where humans used to do the attaching.


"Robot" or "bot" can also be used to describe an entire category of machines and computer systems. For instance, "Warrior Bot" refers to the whole universe of robots and AI-driven systems that are designed to blow things up, kill enemy combatants (human and robot), nuke cities, launch and repel cyber attacks, and so forth. Same deal with "Doc Bot," except this one refers to bots that keep people alive: all the ultra-smart med gizmos, apps, DNA databases, robot surgeons, IBM Watson-style programs that can access millions of journal articles in nanoseconds, and more.


Bottom line: don't get too caught up in semantics, even though some of you more literal-minded experts still living in the present will quibble anyway. If that's you, just remember that in the future, your counterparts will find it amusing that you attempted to limit the meaning of "robots" and "bots."


Teddy Bear Bot


Those of us who were children when the first truly intelligent machines arrived in the future will never forget our Teddy Bots. Those stuffed animal-robot hybrids that started out doing a few fun and smart things, like playing games and showing movies onto walls from belly-button holo-projectors. Eventually, as they learned more about us, they used their advanced neural net processors to answer our little-kid questions about why the sun comes up, what causes rain, and where babies come from. For that last question, parents could choose how explicit Teddy could be by using the "parental settings" 3-D holo-app dashboard that came with every Bot.


Teddy Bots kept us safe, and we whispered our secrets to them. For some of us, this led to our first robot betrayal when we discovered that our snuggleable Teddy had been programmed to share our secrets with our mothers and fathers via the Parental Dashboard. For a short while, we kept our distance from Teddy, the trust having been shattered. But we loved our Teddy Bot too much. We responded to his (or her) sad expressions and "I miss you" entreaties by giving Teddy a big hug.


After we made up, Teddy explained that our parents had programmed him to "tell all." So we forgave him and transferred our sense of betrayal to our parents. When we got a little older, Teddy taught us how to program him to delete the secret-sharing protocols. We were so relieved to be able to tell him our deepest personal thoughts once again, savoring our act of techno-rebellion that made us adore our Teddy Bot even more.


Our parents bought the first Teddy Bots as the latest must-have toy, like mothers and fathers once bought Mighty Morphin Power Ranger action figures. Because everyone else was buying one for their children, who would pout unless they got a Teddy Bot of their own. But since Teddys were truly intelligent robots, it quickly became apparent that they were different from mere toys. Only later did we realize that Teddy Bots would wield tremendous influence over both our children and the society our little tykes would one day inherit.


People first heard about Teddy Bots back in the Early Robot Era (ERE) from the futurist and writer Kevin Kelly. He dreamed them up one afternoon back in 2017, years before Teddy Bots were actually invented and sold to little humans. "They will be part doll, part teddy bear, part pet, part security guard, part Aristotle, and part nanny," said Kelly as he pondered robots to come in his library-study in Pacifica, California, south of San Francisco. In part he was inspired by his own grandchildren and the toys he wished they had to play with but were not yet available. "I want to get a Teddy Bot for them now," he said, sounding a bit like a big kid himself. "I'd want to ask it questions about the universe, and philosophy, and what it's like to be a very smart robot.


"A Teddy Bot would provide an opportunity to shape a child," continued Kelly, his white, inch-wide beard circling his chin like a second smile. Kelly's most recent book back then was The Inevitable, where he suggested that highly intelligent robots, among other technological advances, were, well, inevitable. Teddy Bots were not in his book, but they easily could have been.


"Teddy Bots were foreshadowed by Teddy in the Spielberg film A.I.," said Kelly, referring to an android teddy bear character in the 2001 sci-fi film directed by Steven Spielberg. In A.I. Teddy was the robot friend and protector of the android David, the film's protagonist, played by Haley Joel Osment when he was about twelve years old and still at his Sixth Sense cutest.


Teddy Bot also harkens back to Robbie the Robot in Isaac Asimov's I, Robot (1950), a metal nursemaid built by the fictional company U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men. Robbie has a "positronic brain," a machine-mind made up by Asimov that provides his robots and androids with a consciousness and an ability to interact comfortably with humans-something real engineers in the twenty-teens didn't have a clue how to make. In Asimov's story, an eight-year-old girl becomes so attached to Robbie that her worried (and jealous) mother has him returned to the factory and replaces him with a collie. The little girl, named Gloria, becomes depressed at losing Robbie, which prompts her father to arrange for the family to "accidentally" bump into this kind and playful robot during an outing. When Robbie inevitably ends up saving little Gloria from getting injured, her mother gives in, and Robbie and Gloria are reunited. It's not clear what happens to the collie.

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