Book review: Talking about robots, not quite talking to robots

The truest summary of the book can be drawn from Duncan’s fictional message back to our present – it really isn’t about the robots – not even the God bots described in the book.

Book review: Talking about robots, not quite talking to robots


It is remarkable that even in 2019, Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics (first detailed in the 1942 story Runaround) still offer the most accessible gateway to discussing robotics – and “robopsychology”.

David Ewing Duncan quotes Asimov’s First Law of Robotics even prior to the prelude of Talking to Robots, which serves up a tantalising clue as to the speculative (not to say, fictional) nature of his work. Unlike proper science fiction though, Duncan isn’t seeing too far into the future – only about 30 years hence. And even here, he is extrapolating from present circumstance, based on his own observations and those of his interviewees. In Duncan’s world, the early 2000s form the Early Robot Era (ERE); his somewhat-confusing use of what he calls the “near-future present” sense necessitates periodic recalibrating to reality as one goes through the book.

Duncan manages to bring in a variety of perspectives on the emerging uses of, and thinking around, robotics, automation, and artificial intelligence (AI), in a carefully casual tone that is more reminiscent of talk show host than technology critique.

This may not sit well with those expecting nuanced discussions on the use of technology and the philosophies involved therein. Duncan, aiming to make robots (or “bots”) and AI even more a part of our everyday conversation (and interactions) than they currently might be, takes a populist position that views anything to do with robots or AI with part scepticism, part awe, and part technophobia. In that sense, he is providing the latest update on common imagination of robot technology, peppered with the views of some experts.

For instance, the conversation is no longer about having sex with robots, but using robots (and artificial intelligence) as an interface – for intimacy and not just sex – between lovers, whether human or robot. An aside here – Duncan leverages this opportunity to discuss not just postmodern notions of love (“could there ever be an algorithm for love?”) but also place it in a historical context – going back to Plato’s Theory of Forms.

Yet, while there is a discussion of the pornography industry, the discussion is silent on prostitution and the attendant socio-political ramifications. Possibly, this is because prostitution continues to be illegal almost everywhere in the United States.

Talking to Robots talks about robotic applications in medicine, and also about the runaway collection of people’s health data, a concern that is already immediate. Even in India, the government has proposed a blueprint for a National Health Stack that sounds alarming from the privacy perspective even if not the data hijacking nightmare that Duncan outlines. Duncan’s primary concern, however, remains the replaceability of human doctors with robots. The idea of an iDoc might seem too trivial when implantable medical devices which stream patient data real-time are already the current focus.

What is more likely is a centralized AI-based monitor that is programmed to suggest most plausible diagnoses based on the data received – and perhaps trigger an alert that will, for instance, automatically inject insulin into a diabetic patient.

It is tempting to think that Duncan pays homage to feminist critiques of technology in talking about WAMBS (per the book, originally Women Against Men Being Stupid) although restricted purely to a discussion of driverless cars causing loss of human jobs. The book’s opening discussion addresses the “existential dread” people feel about loss of control – possibly from the fear that robots will take away their jobs.

Duncan cites a 2013 Oxford report according to which 47% of total US employment (not Britain, as mentioned in the book) comprises jobs that are “are potentially automatable over some unspecified number of years, perhaps a decade or two.” That report does not dwell on gendered nuances; however, a 2018 report from the World Economic Forum does, saying “around 57% of the estimated 1.4 million jobs lost to automation by 2026 will belong to women”.

Speculating on the strengths and shortcomings of the “Human + Machine” hybrid is more an exercise on what kind of repetitive tasks might benefit from retraining humans to use new technologies without going into the nuance that even retraining will only benefit the few. Painting this as a “far-left” criticism, however, plays into existing biases on conversations around technology. One wonders if any of the interviewees were asked about the gendered impact of technology and how that might play out in the near future.

Duncan’s discussion on the politician bot is perhaps the closest the book comes – to science fiction, focusing almost entirely on the likeliness of current US President Donald Trump being a robot. The book would have gained much from refreshing perspectives on Alan Moore’s fictional computer Fate, which controls the dystopian society in V for Vendetta through the human Adam Susan who has romantic feelings for the computer.

The automation of politics is again less served by social credit and rating systems and more by automated, algorithmic decision-making which might perhaps take the bureacracy out of modern-day politics. Such decision-making may be available to the average citizen – and to space explorers – in Duncan’s universe, through the use of risk-free bots and daemon bots, respectively.

It may be useful to compare Talking to Robots with, for instance, Thomas Sheridan’s 2016 review of Human-Robot Interactions (HRI). Sheridan, to those unacquainted, is Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a recognized robotics pioneer — even if not cited in Duncan’s book. His 2016 paper, published in Human Factors, concludes inter alia, “The efficacy of humanoid general-purpose robots has yet to be proven.” Duncan quotes the inventor Dean Kamen instead as saying... the anthropomorphic robot... has the least incremental value to society”.

There are more plausible human-robot interactions that Duncan does discuss at length, such as wearable bots which synthesize, via neural plasticity, super-sensory experiences that can potentially help overcome sensory disabilities but on the flip side be programmed to trigger insanity or violent tendencies.

Over and beyond medical advances and heightened sensory experiences, the choice of extending human lifetimes, perhaps taking humanity to the next level of evolution, takes a binary form according to Duncan: Homo digitalis or Homo syntheticis. The former does away with the wear-and-tear of the corporeal form and involves downloading our thoughts and memories – our brains - into robots; the latter about turning into androids or cyborgs (or — for the Whovians — cybermen) by replacing biological parts with technological equivalents.

Both are familiar themes for ardent science fiction followers – the ethics, politics, philosophy all extensively discussed. What Duncan does is suggest that such a choice may become mandatory, with those choosing not to upgrade – likely those who cannot afford to upgrade - forced into a “subservient and possibly pet-like status”.

While it may be romantic to paint this as potential, even inevitable evolution, we cannot gloss over the fact that previous evolutionary leaps from, say, Homo neanderthalensis to Homo sapiens, were not socio-historically recorded, whereas the transition from Homo sapiens to Duncan’s binary choices will likely be bloody, and given extensive social media use, recorded in a number of languages and artforms.

Unless a large percentage of humans quietly fuses into the robotic virtual reality pods described by Duncan as Matrix Bots, we will be spending the time between the present and Duncan’s near-future debating, politicizing, depoliticizing, philosophizing and ultimately coming to terms with a transition in control of human societies, whether to dystopia or otherwise. The truest summary of the book can be drawn from Duncan’s fictional message back to our present – it really isn’t about the robots – not even the God bots described in the book.

Godavar (formally Raghuram S Godavarthi) is a poet-playwright turned digital rights activist. He currently co-chairs Article 21 trust which seeks to affirm human rights at the intersection of technology and welfare governance. He is also a member of the Rethink Aadhaar collective which has been working to widen the conversation around the Aadhaar project and its impact on the lives and livelihood of Indians

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