AI in Sci-Fi robots

Let’s ponder the evolution of artificial intelligence in science fiction robots. Robby the Robot appeared in the 1956 movie Forbidden Planet, heralding the first appearance of a robot. Ironically in the same year that the term “artificial intelligence” was coined at Dartmouth. Robby was programmed by his creator Dr. Morbius to obey Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics.  These laws specify that a robot (i) may not injure a human being, (ii) must obey human orders and (iii) must protect its own existence. Robby was built to serve mankind and is capable of cooking, cleaning, sewing, driving and manufacturing booze. Robby was anthropomorphic, that is having human qualities, had the sophistication of  human being, and even a dry wit. Robby represented the future of robots, and the AI that ran them. After Robby came the Robot from TV series Lost in Space (1965-1968). The robot had no name, but was a Class M-3 Model B9 – General Utility Non-Theorizing Environmental Control Robot. The Robot was capable of complex calculations, had sensors capable of detecting danger (which he was extremely adept at, and anyone who knows the series knows the catchcry “Danger, Will Robinson!“), and vast repositories of information. The robot boasted having “the best computer on earth”, and its speech interpretation abilities were extremely proficient. When it couldn’t do something, it used the phrase “does not compute”.

In the 1970s came the two droids from Star Wars: R2-D2 ad C-3PO. The Star Wars movies represent an realm where computers are inherently intelligent, and droids are task-specific. Notice the use of the term droid.  Yet neither have the ability to divert from their intrinsic programming. R2-D2 is an astromech droid, capable of almost anything it seems, including hacking. C-3PO’s main task is protocol, and has the ability to translate 3,000,000 different languages. Yet these droids are service tools, programmed to do a job. Their intelligence stems from a plethora of information gathered though their interactions, essentially learned behaviour. Whilst they are capable improvisation within the scope of their abilities, they more often than not stick to their pre-programmed notions. R2 units for example, were designed to make repairs to whatever starship they were assigned to, yet R2-D2 used his experiences to learn and grow, so it is possible that all such units had this capability, bar memory wipes. But in reality, these droids are more akin to appliances than artificial life. True, they do mimic human behaviour on occasion, but do they have a soul? Do they feel? Do they have hopes and dreams like sentient beings do?

Some might consider the phrase C3PO’s cries out when Vader attacks Leia’s ship at the start of Episode IV:  “We’re doomed“. Is this a gut feeling he has? Or more likely a calculation of the firepower of Vader’s ship over the Tantive IV.

Lastly we come to our friends the “Cylons”, or Battlestar Galactica fame. Appearing first in the 1978 TV series, the metallic version of these robots are not in any great sense of the word thinkers. They follow a set modus operandi, taking orders from their more intelligent human-like keepers. The idea of such robots is not inconceivable, as battlefield robotics is certainly on the radar. The human-like cylons, also known as skin-jobs, are another matter all together. It is hard to conceive that they are robotic at all, because they are entirely composed of biological matter. They eat, they sleep, they think. They have a conscience, and although they can share their memories to the collective, this may be more of a limitation on our part than anything else. They are essentially genetically modified humans, and as such don’t really have a truly artificial intelligence.


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