Within the genre of science fiction there is a common trope: the cautionary tale. Perhaps one of the better known examples is also one of the earliest examples of what came to be called science fiction: Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley. In the tale, a reanimated collection of body parts becomes a monster that destroys its creator. Other well-known tales of this sort would be the various stories of run-amuck robots, from the first story from which the term “robot” originates—R.U.R., a Czech play by Karel Čapek. The title of the story is an acronym for “Rossom’s Universal Robot.” It is from this 1921 play that the word “robot” entered the English language: it is a Czech word simply meaning “worker.” The play relates the story of a robot rebellion that leads to the extinction of the human race.
James Cameron’s 1984 movie The Terminator pictures a fearful future, when the robot creations of Skynet run amuck, destroying the world in a nuclear holocaust. They then hunt down and try to kill all the surviving humans, going so far as to send a “terminator” back in time to kill the mother of the leader of the human resistance movement before he was even born.
Thus, when Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos on the CBS news program 60 Minutes recently talked about their idea for speeding up the delivery of packages to their customers, some people immediately commented “sounds like the beginnings of Skynet.” What is Bezos planning? In “four or five” years, pending regulatory approval from entities such as the FAA, he’d like to use autonomous flying drones guided by GPS to deliver packages within thirty minutes of being ordered.
One of the first things to point out, of course, is that R.U.R., The Terminator and its sequels, and various movies and television shows from the fifties are fiction. They are neither documentaries nor prophesies. The connection between Hollywood and reality is generally tenuous at best.
That occasionally something portrayed in a fictional universe may come to pass is the exception, not the rule. Science fiction authors are not prognosticators. They are simply storytellers whose primary goal is to create entertainment. Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 movie 2001 failed to describe the actual year 2001. Pan American was out of business, and was not flying passengers to a giant, rotating space station. There were no moon bases. Self-aware computers like HAL did not exist.
But unintelligent computers are ubiquitous, running everything from your automobile to your washing machine. In your pocket, you probably carry a smartphone that has more computing power than all of NASA had during the moon landings. Do you fear your cellphone? Do you stay up at night worrying that it is plotting world domination?
Science fiction authors of the forties, fifties and sixties never imagined our computer connected world. If you read Clarke, Asimov, or Heinlein, computers were monstrous devices that filled a building or even a planet. No science fiction author ever imagined computers fitting in your pocket. They never predicted that they’d give you instant access to any human being on the planet, or that they’d grant you access to all of human knowledge—which you’d then use mostly to figure out who that obscure actor was in an old movie you’re watching on TV.
The Terminator vision of robots is not the only vision that exists in science fiction. Isaac Asimov postulated a more benevolent future with robots designed to be as incapable of harming human beings as your toaster.
New technologies can be scary. In fact, any change—good or bad—can be unsettling. But we don’t have to let our darkest fears overwhelm the bright possibilities. As with anything in our lives, new gadgets and technologies can either curse us or bless us. But based on history, blessing seems to be the most common outcome.
Think about it. Just about anything can be misused. The knife that cuts your steak could become a murder weapon. Passenger jets can be used for building demolition. Fertilizer can become a bomb. A toaster that browns your bread can electrocute someone if it’s tossed into their bathwater. You could use your car to run down pedestrians. You could use a baseball bat to pummel random passersby. The possible perversion of good into evil is never-ending. Should we allow potential evil keep us from enjoying what is wonderful?
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic according to the science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke. Personally, I’d really like to have some more magic in my life. I enjoy the magic that I already take for granted. After all, I appreciate the robots that wash my dishes and do my laundry: the dishwasher and the washing machine. So it’s hard for me to fear the coming robots that might mow my lawn, mop my floor, drive my car, and deliver my packages. And really, wouldn’t you rather send drones instead of eighteen-year-olds to fight Al-Qaeda?