Sunday, November 25, 2007

Year of the Robot

Every Christmastime, I take an hour and drool over the bi-annual Sharper Image catalog, and imagine our dystopic future ruled by superfluous gizmos from Korea. Progress marches on this year, with the catalog's opening pages devoted to pet robots of every conceivable species, from vacuum cleaners (now with "anti-tassel" technology!) to insects to re-animated Elvis. Elvis lives!

When the androids become self-aware and the revolution inevitably happens (June 12, 2012: mark your calendar), there really won't be any greater indignity than being killed by a three-hundred dollar animatronic rockin' Elvis.

Okay, no robot apocalypse, but the damn things still creep me out, especially as they're evolving into more "lifelike" creatures of servos and sprockets. Pleo the Brontosaurus here, or whatever he's supposed to be, "develops his own personality, moods and habits," needs training and socialization — he really seems like a lot of trouble. A pet without the dander, and the affection... so he's pretty much Pig.

I find these androids just a tad condescending towards humanity. Not so much the engineering nerds at Honda creaming themselves over Asimo because it's been years since they've had contact with an actual human being, but the rest of us. He can run, he can dance, he can play the trumpet! Big deal — I can do all those things, plus I can walk downstairs without toppling over. (Usually.) Suck on that, Asimo!

And you know what else Asimo can't do? Love, that's what.

That's what frustrates me with this so-called robot vitality, and I see us raising a generation of children believing computers can show true empathy. And the reverse, like when you're stomping on ants and there's a half-crushed one writhing, waiting for the sweet release of death. It doesn't count as a living thing until it's squished on its thorax with those six little legs twitching pathetically in the air, and Wittgenstein notwithstanding, suddenly your sick mind apprehends how that feels for the poor thing. And someday robots will get the same recognition — that's what "lifelike" means, after all — and hippies will protest over the poor working conditions, long hours, and meager pay for all the Screwbots and Weld-O-Matics toiling away in factories for the benefit of the rich first world.

The Sharper Image needs to re-brand. They're not lifelike, they're bipedal toasters, although now I expect to see Toaster-Bot 3000 in next year's catalog. (Headline: "Your new robotic best friend wakes you up, makes breakfast, and dances!")