Winner of 'Robots With Feelings' announced; Alison Ireland feels her way through the various examples of artificial life
13th March 2015
I am not sure what is more disturbing to humankind: robots without feelings, or robots with feelings. The ones without feelings are the ones we are used to: they clean the floor, record one’s voice, transport one round the country, dictate directions to a destination, or count calories consumed. With these patently programmed robotic devices we like to imbue them with character, to say they ‘a mind of their own’, that they ‘like’ or ‘don’t like’ their owner.
This is in part because people tend to be bad at relationships in which the other person has different feelings and opinions from them, so it’s nice to have one in which one can manage the response mechanism.
Robots with or without feelings are equally scary because feelings imply a secondary course of action – an emotional response. But who is to say whether the emotions be positive or negative? Interestingly, almost all the entries took ‘feelings’ to be a positive on the part of the robot – with one excellent, almost-exception: the war-robot, the SNIPE, programmed to shoot as an auto-response. In the piece in question , the robot is forced to shoot up an area of housing with children inside; after the completion of this act, it sheds a tear and commits suicide by shooting itself (see here)
The winner, finishing with the highest average score, is a description of an auto-death scenario which I personally find very appealing; the idea is that you have pre-scheduled your mode of exit in advance and are guided out of life with impersonal gentleness of a spa experience:
‘The edge of pain was gone before, but now the top and sides and bottom of the pain have fallen away, and the sound of wings and raindrops echoes in the darkness. A warm, wet breeze wafts in with the scent of onions, of ozone and stargazer lilies. The bed seems made of fur and vibrates with a purr like a cat being petted. The taste of champagne and chanterelles, butter and then the bright evanescence on my tongue bring a smile. I feel so relaxed.’
It’s a highly original, believable and arguably positive piece, and a deserving winner.
Continuing the theme of actual robots, with feelings is our first featured entry which involved the enjoyable role reversal embodied by a couple of caring robots witnessing and responding to the extra-uteral birth of a human baby boy in a world where such creatures were apparently rare. This alternative view of the ‘workings’ of a human as a manageable machine is entertaining and takes us intelligently through the first six months of life:-
‘TI-13 held the Boy Unit in its arms and watched it play with its
fingers. "I could stare at it for hours."
RA-7 nodded. "It moved across the floor by itself earlier today, and its noises almost sound like language."
"It doesn't have an identification label. I think we should choose one."
"A good point. It’s a Boy Unit so how about BU-7?"
"I was thinking BU-13."’
The other main take on the title involved showing humans in all their predictable robotic glory. My favourite of these is our second featured entry, ‘Beep beep. Beep beep beep. Beep beep.’ for want of an individual title.
It’s a highly unusual poetic piece of prose and one marking critics describes it in part thus:
‘The way that you reveal all the non-robotic allure without ever directly stating, mentioning, that you have created this contrast to the stifling robotic work and perhaps world of the protagonist amazes.’
It’s a densely-packed piece working in two voices and thus hard to choose a representative section to quote, but I’ll go with the following for its refreshingly clear communication:-
‘You find that the houses seem to blend into one another now. You’ve walked this same route in the same manner too many times for any new charm to call out across the gates. You don’t comprehend this. You have forgotten they were charming to begin with. You seem to be dulled yourself, seeing the grey sunlight sap the colour from the trees. You are simply focused on the day ahead. You have tasks. You have jobs to complete, start and manage. You are a busy person. You look at your feet jumping forward in front of you.‘
This young writer has turned from poetry to prose within the Hour of Writes, so far brief, journey of experimentation and I find it exciting to see where they will go next.
On Radio 4 this week I heard scientists describe how they had been able to program the variables of the conditions which went into forming the universe so far as we know, and on running the program found that a universe very similar to ours developed. Does this mean that humankind could some day also be programmed? And if so, does this make a human equivalent to a robot? Or does something else take place when that number of variables is put together which has scope beyond the sum of its parts and its program? This was a challenging title with fewer than usual entries, but of a very high quality filled with empathy and originality. What would the robots have written?
AI 16th March 2015