As if I didn’t have enough to worry about… after reading Robopocalypse – a hyper-realistic story of a robot uprising – I’m now keeping a very wary eye on my new computerized toaster…
I’m sure you remember the film The Terminator, which involved a cyborg assassin sent back in time from the year 2029 to 1984 to kill a lady called Sarah Connor. The underlying story was that, in the not-so-distant future, an artificial intelligence network called Skynet becomes self-aware and initiates a nuclear holocaust of mankind. Sarah's yet-unborn son John will rally the survivors and lead a resistance movement against Skynet and its army of machines. With the Resistance on the verge of victory, Skynet has sent a robot called a Terminator (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) back in time to kill Sarah before John can be born, as a last-ditch effort to avert the formation of the Resistance.
As an aside, when I first saw The Terminator it made me want to learn how to ride a motorcycle. Not that I want to actually own a motorcycle, you understand, but it struck me that if I were to be running down a street being chased by a homicidal robot and I came across a really powerful motorcycle with the keys in the ignition … I would have to keep on running because I don’t know how to ride one. Reading Robopocalypse has brought “Learning to ride a motorcycle” right back to the top of my personal “To Do” list.
As another aside, The Terminator was released in 1984, which is 28 years ago as I pen these words (where does the time go?). Did you know that it helped launch the film careers of James Cameron (who directed it) and Arnold Schwarzenegger? And did you also know that it was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry, being deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant"?
But we digress… the thing is that (putting the time-travelling aspects of The Terminator aside) when this film came out, as far as most people were concerned the thought of our creating a self-aware artificial intelligence like Skynet was… well, firmly in the realms of science fiction, shall we say.
Now, after reading Robopocalypse, I’m not so sure. This book really is more than a little scary, if the truth be told. The author, Daniel H. Wilson, earned a Ph.D. in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University, and he’s made quite a name for himself with a number of books such as A Boy and His Bot (for younger readers) and How to Survive a Robot Uprising (which I just added to my “Wish List” on Amazon.com).
actually begins 20 minutes after the end of the war, when a team of humans discover a cybernetic data storage device that contains a documentary-type record of the war from the robots’ point of view.
There are many really good things about this book, not the least that the author really knows what he’s talking about and the dozens of unique robots that spy, stalk, and fight through the Robopocalypse
are grounded in existing robotic research. Also, the human characters in the book are very well observed, which makes you really identify with them and think to yourself “What would I do in that situation?”
(In my case, the answer may well be to scream like a schoolgirl – not that this would help, but it would make me feel better.) In many ways Robopocalypse
is reminiscent of the sort of books Michael Crichton used to write, like the Andromeda Strain
and The Terminal Man
, which means the reader is in for a gripping time (both of these books have "aged", but they were "state-of-the-art" at the time and they are still well worth reading).
As yet another aside, Daniel (the author of Robopocalypse
) really reminds me of the tall, thin, gawky super-genius theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper in the American sitcom The Big Bang Theory
Jim Parsons as Dr. Sheldon CooperDaniel Wilson as himself
So, just how far-fetched is the Robopocalypse
scenario? Well, it all depends on who you talk to. In his book The Singularity is Near
, futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts that we will achieve the equivalent of a single human-level artificial intelligence by around 2020; also that by around 2045 the sum total of robotic intelligence will exceed that of the combined intelligence of every human on the planet (estimated to be close to 9 billion by around 2045).
But will these artificial intelligences be self-aware to the level that they might decide humans are a threat and determine to remove us from the picture? In his Skeptic
column in the January 2012 issue of Scientific American
, Michael Shermer’s prediction for the Singularity is that “We are 10 years away… and always will be.”
Of course Michael is skeptical about everything (grin).
Just the other day, literally hours after I’d finished reading Robopocalypse
, I turned on the television and found myself watching one of those “10 Ways the World Might End”
type programs on the Discovery Channel. You can only imagine my surprise to discover that our being wiped out by self-aware artificial intelligences was rated about number six on the list…
I believe that Robopocalypse
is already being made into a Steven Spielberg film slated for 2013 release. I for one will be there for the opening. I will also be keeping a watchful eye on robotic developments, and I think it’s safe to say that we will not be having any robot assistants in our house, let me tell you! In the meantime, I intend to read Daniel’s How to Survive a Robot Uprising
, which the blurb on Amazon describes as follows:
How do you spot a robot mimicking a human? How do you recognize and then deactivate a rebel servant robot? How do you escape a murderous “smart” house, or evade a swarm of marauding robotic flies? In this dryly hilarious survival guide, roboticist Daniel H. Wilson teaches worried humans the keys to quashing a robot mutiny.
From treating laser wounds to fooling face and speech recognition, besting robot logic to engaging in hand-to-pincer combat, How to Survive a Robot Uprising covers every possible doomsday scenario facing the newest endangered species: humans. And with its thorough overview of current robot prototypes—including giant walkers, insect, gecko, and snake robots—How to Survive a Robot Uprising is also a witty yet legitimate introduction to contemporary robotics. Full of cool illustrations, and referencing some of the most famous robots in pop-culture, How to Survive a Robot Uprising is a one-of-a-kind book that is sure to be a hit with all ages.
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