Robots in the Movies should be taken seriously

The Grandfather of Terminator: Screenshot from "L'uomo meccanico" (Italy 1921)
The Grandfather of Terminator: Screenshot from „L’uomo meccanico“ (Italy 1921)

At the recent workshop on Autonomous technologies and their societal impact at the SIPRI Institute in Stockholm several presenters criticized the media and especially the movies for drawing a wrong and exaggerated picture of robotics and AI, thus inappropriately fueling fears of robots taking over. I was surprised, though, to see this accusation illustrated with pictures of „Terminator“ besides those from films like „Robot & Frank“ which is arguably one of the best fictional examination of robotics that hit the screen in recent years. At least, a little bit more differentiation would be desirable.

What’s more, even films like „Terminator“, „RoboCop“, „Colossus: The Forbin Project“, and many others convey messages that need to be taken seriously. Roboticists should not let themselves be distracted by the surface of these stories. Of course, the design of the robots as well as their abilities are usually highly speculative. But cinema is first of all an emotional experience. And these emotions of fear and inferiority in the face of robots carry a truth in itself: the experience of soldiers in World War I to be an insignificant part of a big war machine without a will on their own, forced to follow the merciless beat of the machines. It is no coincidence that the idea of machines taking over completely was developed in stage plays like „R.U.R.“ by Karel Çapek (which used the term „robot“ for the first time) or films like „L’uomo meccanico“ by André Deed only three years after the end of this terrible war. Even hundred years later, in films like Terminator you still can feel the echoes from the trenches of the Great War 1914-1918.

Another aspect of this dispute is the confrontation of different modes of thinking. Engineers and computer scientist are probably tuned to think in spreadsheets which is also the dominant mode of thinking in politics: At the end of the day there has to be a table with rows and columns and the right numbers in the table elements. The other, much older way to catch on reality is to think in stories. The first models ever constructed were the myths. It is a way to attain knowledge that is as valid as the mathematically based one. A profound debate on the ethics of robotics needs to accomodate both modes of approaching reality.

Finally, those who blame the media of exaggerating should take a critical look at themselves, too. As a journalist I get a lot of press releases by companies and research institutes that exaggerate their achievements and the abilities of their robots in the first place, claiming for instance robots were already helping rescue workers, while currently there are only research platforms. Unfortunately, reality often is not as simple as we wish it to be.

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