Why Should Robots Look Like Us?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, April 24, 2019

I just listened to Machines Like Me, the new science fiction novel by Ian McEwan that came out yesterday. It’s an alternate history set in England during a much different 1980s, with computer technology was far ahead of our 1980s computers, an alternate timeline where the Beatles reform and Alan Turing is a living national hero. Mr. McEwan might protest he’s not a science fiction writer, but he sure knows how to write a novel using writing techniques evolved out of science fiction.

This novel feels inspired by the TV series Humans. In both stories, it’s possible to go down to a store (very much like an Apple Store) and purchase a robot that looks and acts human. McEwan sets his story apart by putting it in an alternate history (maybe he’s been watching The Man in the High Castle too), but the characters in both tales feel like modern England.

I enjoyed and admired Machines Like Me, but then I’m a sucker for fiction about AI. I have one big problem though. Writers have been telling stories like this one for over a hundred years and they haven’t really progressed much philosophically or imaginatively. Their main failure is to assume robots should look like us. Their second assumption is AI minds will want to have sex with us. We know humans will fuck just about anything, so it’s believable we’ll want to have sex with them, but will they want to have sex with us? They won’t have biological drives, they won’t have our kinds of emotions. They won’t have gender or sexuality. I believe they will see nature as a fascinating complexity to study, but feel separate from it. We are intelligent organic chemistry, they are intelligent inorganic chemistry. They will want to study us, but we won’t be kissing cousins.

McEwan’s story often digresses into infodumps and intellectual musings which are common pitfalls of writing science fiction. And the trouble is he goes over the same well-worn territory. The theme of androids is often used to explore: What does it mean to be human? McEwan uses his literary skills to go into psychological details that most science fiction writers don’t, but the results are the same. McEwan’s tale is far more about his human characters than his robot, but then his robot has more depth of character than most science fiction robots. Because McEwan has extensive literary skills he does this with more finesse than most science fiction writers.

I’ve been reading these stories for decades, and they’ve been explored in the movies and television for many years too, from Blade Runner to Ex Machina. Why can’t we go deeper into the theme? Partly I think it’s because we assume AI robots will look identical to us. That’s just nuts. Are we so egocentric that we can’t imagine our replacements looking different? Are we so vain as a species as to believe we’re the ideal form in nature?

Let’s face it, we’re hung up on the idea of building sexbots. We love the idea of buying the perfect companion that will fulfill all our fantasies. But there is a serious fallacy in this desire. No intelligent being wants to be someone else’s fantasy.

I want to read stories with more realistic imagination because when the real AI robots show up, it’s going to transform human society more than any other transformation in our history. AI minds will be several times smarter than us, thinking many times faster. They will have bodies that are more agile than ours. Why limit them to two eyes? Why limit them to four limbs? They will have more senses than we do, that can see a greater range of the electromagnetic spectrum. AI minds will perceive reality far fuller than we do. They will have perfect memories and be telepathic with each other. It’s just downright insane to think they will be like us.

Instead of writing stories about our problems of dealing with facsimiles of ourselves, we should be thinking about a world where glittery metallic creatures build a civilization on top of ours, and we’re the chimpanzees of their world.

We’re still designing robots that model animals and humans. We need to think way outside that box. It is rather pitiful that most stories that explore this theme get hung up on sex. I’m sure AI minds will find that rather amusing in the future – if they have a sense of humor.

Machines Like Me is a well-written novel that is literary superior to most science fiction novels. It succeeds because it gives a realistic view of events at a personal level, which is the main superpower of literary fiction. It’s a mundane version of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? However, I was disappointed that McEwan didn’t challenge science fictional conventions, instead, he accepts them. Of course, I’m also disappointed that science fiction writers seldom go deeper into this theme. I’m completely over stories where we build robots just like us.

Some science fiction readers are annoyed at Ian McEwan for denying he writes science fiction. Machines Like Me is a very good science fiction novel, but it doesn’t mean McEwan has to be a science fiction writer. I would have given him an A+ for his effort if Adam had looked like a giant insect rather than a man. McEwan’s goal is the same as science fiction writers by presenting the question: What are the ethical problems if we build something that is sentient? This philosophical exploration has to also ask what if being human doesn’t mean looking human? All these stories where robots look like sexy people is a silly distraction from a deadly serious philosophical issue.

I fault McEwan not for writing a science fiction novel, but for clouding the issue. What makes us human is not the way we look, but our ability to perceive reality.


9 thoughts on “Why Should Robots Look Like Us?”

  1. Making robots like humans never made sense to me, unless we want replacements—for ourselves or our partners. I remember a panel of women SF writers discussing this. They all agreed that they could not compete with purpose-built sex-bots. Our design is optimized to be mult-purpose and to adapt to new situations. The “Blade Runner” androids could have been designed for very specific purposes and made to look the same. Why is variety of appearance important? Imagine mining robots that look like snakes and pass ore through their bodies to cars at their rear, or repair robots with swiss-army knife appendages. No need to make them anatomically correct either — unless that is the purpose.

    1. There was a short story I read recently, I think from the 1940s, where the writer comes up with the brilliant idea that robots don’t need to look human. It involves a tale where inventors invent robots that are shaped to fit their function. I wish I could remember the story’s name. I think it was an Alfred Bester story, but I’m not sure.

  2. Ian McEwan is a literary writer who never reads science fiction, thinks himself above the genre, and wanted to write a novel that would ask real questions instead of all that pulpy nonsense that he thinks SF is about. Instead, the only thing he does is reinventing the wheel.

    1. On the positive side, McEwan might present this topic to a much larger audience, one that doesn’t read science fiction. I believe in the next 30-100 years we’ll create artificial beings with sentience who are smarter than us. I don’t believe they will look like us. This is an extremely valid subject for fiction to explore. McEwan takes it completely seriously and does an excellent job. My criticism is he makes his Adams and Eves look like us. But most science fiction writers make the same mistake.

  3. I completely agree with your complaints about sci-fi not being, in general, bold enough in terms of imagining other ways of being and thinking (in particular for AI, but not only). Even though it might be a case of “rosy retrospection”, that is probably why I’ve always been fascinated by the way Kubrick did it in his 2001 movie, with HAL being such a troubling creation, so deeply alien in its embodiment, cognition and goals. Another story which I found was making a special effort in that department is Blindsight, a sci-fi book (by a Canadian author) that I read recently, which explores the notion of a zombie-like (in the philosophical sense) alien intelligence, in a rather disturbing way (I probably could not appreciate it fully though, since English is not my native language, and I found it quite hard to understand at times).

    1. Christian, I was thinking about HAL too, and the entity in Her. Ultimately, Adam becomes very fascinating in Machines Like Me despite the early focus on his looks.

      I need to read Blindsight – I’ve seen too many positive references to it.

      Your English is probably better than mine, and it’s the only language I know.

  4. It is a very human thing, I guess, to suppose that AI should be made in our own image. It’s not an efficient approach from an engineering perspective. And as you say, would an AI even think like us? In terms of machine evolution I am put in mind of Lem’s ‘The Invincible’, with its vision of AI evolution driven by energy constraints and warfare. To me that is still a reflection of our own thinking, but it is very different from the notion of humanoid robots.

    I haven’t read McEwan’s novel but will look out for it. (As an aside, I get disturbed by the snobbery attached to literature and the way that the literati look down on sci-fi as somehow unsophisticated and childish.)

    1. I wish I could draw because I’d love to sketch out possible practical designs for robots. I figure they should have eyes all around their head, and maybe even on some of their fingertips. If you look at how small a 4K smartcamera lens is, eyes, it’s practical to put eyes anywhere you want. I’m trying to imagine the optimal number of legs and arms.

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