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Robots: Will they love us? Will we love them?

( -- Perversely timed to Labor Day comes news, in the journal Nature, that computer scientists at Brandeis University have created a robot that can make a robot, almost entirely without human help.

Previous Columns by Lance Morrow

Imagine that the Stepford Wives had acquired Stepford Husbands and produced a Stepford Baby.

I suppose that the only hope for labor unions in this news -- the beginning of the realization of science fiction nightmares hypothesized for years -- is that eventually drone robots, in a future robot civilization, will teach themselves to sing, "I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,/alive as you and me," and will walk out of the robot factories, pumping molybdenum fists in the air and striking to demand ... to demand.... What is it we want, fellas? Better pay? More frequent lubrication? The wily programmers will have eliminated all troublesome human urgencies from the worker 'bots. It will not occur to them to strike. Your ideal robot has zero discontents. The American labor movement may be in deeper trouble than it imagined.

Science fiction has long been at work on scenarios of robots that evolve and manufacture ever-improving versions of themselves, and eventually develop human traits -- the capacity to feel, to love, to hate. In such fiction, the climactic poignancy occurs when the automaton, love-stricken, sheds a tear. This is because the robot, like Hemingway's Jake Barnes in "The Sun Also Rises," has a sad incapacity to mate; surely that is one of the first defects the shrewd robots would correct.

But the sheer non-fiction of the scene in the lab of Drs. Jordan B. Pollack and Hod Lipson at Brandeis gives one a metaphysical chill. Their primitive little creature, offspring of their robot, has one ability only: It crawls. Dr. Lipson tells The New York Times that the robot "walks something like a crab. It looks like it's crawling on the floor." This sounds eerily familiar.

For the moment, the scientists report, the robotyke has the brainpower of bacteria: "We hope to get up to insect level in a couple of years." Meantime, in another part of the forest, the human genome project is nearly complete. Peering into the future, one dimly discerns a convergence. Here are the projected patterns:

1) Humans, working with the genome roadmap, evolve themselves -- correcting nature's blunders, fixing a defect of vision here, a tendency toward diabetes there, until in the fullness of time a perfected human specimen walks the Earth, while, simultaneously, 2) The robots, in their parallel universe, labor at their own evolution, building their own brains, refining their subtleties and abilities at the speed of light.

The robots become more human. The humans become more ... robotic? Or is that fair to say? Perhaps the humans become more human (whatever that means)? Perhaps it is a win-win situation and both humans and automatons end up feeling good about themselves.

What do we get when the two forms have developed to the limit (or is there any limit?) of their potential? A collision of some kind, surely. War? Intermarriage? Perfect little babies -- beautiful crawlers?

Which life form, the biological or the artificial, will have the more winning personality? Can it be true that humans, being cranky and irrational, have, for all these years, stupidly congratulated themselves on the idea that, whatever their technical imperfections, they have richer personalities (turbulent with love, laughter, passion, envy, etc.) than the merely rational/mechanical robot? Maybe, next to the sleek artificials, we messy biologicals (requiring deodorants and bathrooms and toilet paper and all the rest) will grow self-conscious and ashamed.

We cannot see that far. For now, we assume that self-evolving robots will learn to mimic human traits, including, eventually, humor. And so, I can't wait to hear the first joke that one robot tells to another robot.

If any reader can predict what that joke will be, I will be delighted to present it to this column's audience, with all due credit and appropriate rimshots.

Copyright © 2000 Time Inc.


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