Friday, 6 December 2013

Apocalyptic Chickens Coming Home To Roost

Last weekend I was in a car that could be programmed to park itself - a feat that would have been unimaginable a century ago. Of course, the irony is, 'unimaginable' is precisely the wrong word because by 'unimaginable' I actually mean something like: 'only imaginable because of our ability to conflate science and fiction to create science fiction'. As technology continues to enhance our lives, it's evident that science fiction and empirical science are interesting bedfellows, engaged in an on-off love affair.

Sometimes science fiction becomes scientific reality, as in the case of self-driving cars, which would have been purely fictional in previous decades (other things that spring to mind are robot limbs, invisibility, space-travel, cloning and shape-shifting, to name a few). And sometimes scientific discovery fuels the imagination for science fiction, as in the case of special relativity, quantum physics, electromagnetism, genetic viruses and evolution by natural selection.

Some people, though, take their considerations too far. Influenced by a few blockbuster sci-fi films (Terminator 3 springs to mind, although I'm sure there are others) some people express concern that our robot creations will one day take on a life of their own and develop or evolve a level of sinister malevolence that will engender world domination and bring ultimate doom on mankind.

The people worried about this are confusing fiction with reality. It makes no sense to talk of human-created machines being more sinister than humans, in the same way that it makes no sense to talk of a beaver dam being more proficient than the capabilities of beavers, or a Thomas Hardy novel that's more romantically tragic than the author could produce with his own creative mind.

When it comes to the man-machine matrix, the worst we could create in machine-form is limited to the worst that is in us - there is no possibility of computers doing anything more sinister or destructive than humans could construct themselves. So when people worry about future robot creations precipitating our doom, they are really worried about other humans precipitating our doom - which, if history is anything to go by, isn't an entirely unrealistic fear.

* Photo courtesy of