Random Thoughts About Androids

Toby Frost

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#1
I've always found robots and androids really interesting in SF. In trying to write a story with an android character, I've run into the following things.

1) Practically speaking, even taking into account the difficulty of making a human-level artificial mind, it is hard to tell why anyone would want to make an android, rather than a human-shaped robot such as C3PO (especially given the technical difficulty of exactly mimicking a human, and the potential for creepiness caused by fairly minor malfunctions). Virtually all android jobs could be done by a humanoid robot, a computer or a suitably motivated human being, depending on the circumstances. Except, perhaps, sex. Which brings me on to:

2) There are almost no female androids in fiction that are not someone’s artificial wife, girlfriend or prostitute (or the focus of someone’s romantic interest). The only exceptions I can think of are Call, the android in Alien Resurrection, and probably Luv, the replicant bodyguard from Blade Runner 2049. There’s very little on which to base a non-sexualised character like this, which requires a bit of lateral thinking if you are going to write one yourself. This may be because the stereotypical robot personality traits – politeness, superhuman ability and a kind of prim intellect – aren’t often given to female characters. Which in turn makes me realise:

3) It’s difficult to write a story about a robot without turning it into a great big metaphor. The obvious one is to portray the androids as slaves which rebel, but a wide range of metaphors fit equally well – or rather, equally badly. After all, there’s a lot of difference between a superhuman machine built to work (and which isn’t programmed to object to working) and a human forced to do so. I thought there would be a good story in an android meeting a disturbed person who pretends to be artificial – but then realised that it could be “interpreted” half a dozen ways by people who read fiction in order to uncover the writer’s subconscious bigotries. However:

4) It’s possible to imagine a society where androids are an integrated part of society – if you like, the step beyond mere oppression. I actually think this is more interesting than the standard “revolt of the slaves” plot: a society that deals with these things by limiting their production and ownership, as well as granting them certain rights (which they may or may not appreciate). I imagine - and hope - a future society might be a little squeamish about a huge heap of dead androids, disposed of arbitrarily when a better model comes along (we would be, otherwise similar imagery wouldn't be put in SF films to unsettle us). Giving machines rights or freedoms may seem odd, but it’s worth mentioning that animals not only have rights that they never used to have, but are also given awards for bravery which they surely cannot appreciate. I can imagine an android having a birthday party which would be of significance only to the humans getting drunk around it.

Personally, I find this more interesting than the discussion of what technology might feasibly accomplish. I'm coming to think that it's really about how society deals with a new element, not whether such a thing could be realistically produced.
 

Stephen Palmer

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#2
3) It’s difficult to write a story about a robot without turning it into a great big metaphor. The obvious one is to portray the androids as slaves which rebel, but a wide range of metaphors fit equally well – or rather, equally badly. After all, there’s a lot of difference between a superhuman machine built to work (and which isn’t programmed to object to working) and a human forced to do so. I thought there would be a good story in an android meeting a disturbed person who pretends to be artificial – but then realised that it could be “interpreted” half a dozen ways by people who read fiction in order to uncover the writer’s subconscious bigotries. However:
Interesting points all.
On 3 -
True, but wouldn't it be difficult to write about anything without the metaphorical aspect?
That's one of the most compelling parts of storytelling, especially "classic" or "mythic" storytelling.
Even a simple, say, love story has an overarching human theme or metaphor, which we use to place it in our own mental world.

I'm genuinely surprised to read though your point about subconscious bigotries. It's never occurred to me that there are people who read fiction in that way. Do you think there are? But even so - so what? It's all part of the discussion that happens after a story or book is published.
 

Brian G Turner

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#3
There are almost no female androids in fiction that are not someone’s artificial wife, girlfriend or prostitute (or the focus of someone’s romantic interest).
This is a very good observation, and underlines the problem that a lot of male writers struggle to write about female characters without defining them in sexual terms. It applies to more than just robots, you see...
 

chrispenycate

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#5
Humaniform robots are favored because they can swap off tasks - and tools - with unmodified humans. In SF, androids might be this - metallic or, more likely now, plastic and composite, with silicon brains (Asimov style) but were more likely to ba synthetic organisms, and thus more difficult to distinguish from genuine homosapiens. Indeed, I remember one story where they were built on human DNA (we'd probably call them 'clones' now, though the label isn't really accurate) and were interfertile with fullblooded humans, though they'd had different 'programming'. They needed 'Made in the USA' stamped round their navels so you could be certain which you were talking with (which would make Cherryh's Azi androids. Obviously they are convenient victims when writing stories of prejudice and racism, but have no overwhelming need for gender (unless their tasks are specifically sexual), so your lack of feminine androids is not a major hangup.

The main advantage of a robot in SF writing is that you don't need to describe it - as with elves and dwarves, previous generations of writers have set an image into the racial subconscious, so while yours may have some supplimentary functions, you can drop the word in without needing a paragraph of data-dump.

Still, the bipedal humanoid form, while convenient in that it can drive trucks and climb ladders (and convenient for Hollywood as easy to generate, either with actors in costumes or, if CGI, you've already got all the animation algorithms) it does waste a great deal of processing power just remaining standing stable. So, unless it's supposed to be losing itself in a crowd, other means of locomotion are perhaps more appropriate when in wheelchair friendly zones.
 
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sknox

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#6
Androids are one thing, but I see a world in which there will be a wide spectrum of entities with some semblance of independence. There will be software which (pace the other thread) will be called intelligent whether or not it meets a technical definition, and will be treated as such. There will be factory machines capable of highly sophisticated tasks that will bear no resemblance at all to humans. There will be machines that look like dogs and cats which will be used as comfort creatures but also used in dangerous situations. There will be machines specifically designed to go into environments inimical to humans; some of this may be humanoid, others won't. Space travel is one example. Why make the whole ship habitable when you need only enough room for the humans to live? Let the robot drive. Then there's be the person born human but with so many implants it's tough to still call them human. Or the clone who is supplemented by various AIs.

Sorting all this out culturally and legally is going to be great fun. I'm convinced we are in the process of re-defining what "human" means. Our cultural discussions of end-of-life, quality of life, beginning of life, artificial intelligence, even the treatment of non-human beings, are all part of a larger conversation the dimensions of which we only dimly perceive. But we will create all of this.
 

Ihe

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#7
It’s difficult to write a story about a robot without turning it into a great big metaphor.
As it's been mentioned, this is true for everything, but I do see why robots are so directly connected to human nature and social commentary in ways other things aren't. You practically cannot do one without the other because robots are a reflection of humans in a much more direct way than almost any other literary element. Creator and creation are intimately intertwined, much more so when the creation is a "copy" or improvement of ourselves. There's something there that goes beyond and despite pragmatism, and it reflects our wants, needs, fears, obsessions, and collective psychoses in a special kind of light.


but have no overwhelming need for gender (unless their tasks are specifically sexual)
This. There should be no reason to have humanoid robots unless it's for sex. The human form is not that efficient to begin with.
 
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#10
The people usually assume that if an android appears in a fiction history, he necesary was created by humans. But I think that could be interesting to explore the possibility of a history with intelligent and not organic beings who appeared in the nature for other reasons instead of being the creation of humans or humanoid aliens.
 

Ihe

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#11
Why do you believe this?
Well, here goes my overly enthusiastic, so-very-thought-out-that-you're-sad-for-me answer: Physically, we're not the most flexible, or strongest, or fastest, or the most physically adaptable, or the most protected, nor do we have any special extras (not amphibian, can't fly, can't burrow, etc). We have adapted narrowly to plains in specific conditions. IMO, physically speaking we are not even in nature's top 100, let alone the universe's (yes, there must be aliens somewhere! :alien:). But we have intelligence, and the reason we evolved intelligence is BECAUSE we were weak compared to most organisms around us--that is the only (veiled) advantage our kind of bodies had over everything else.

By building a machine you no longer have to subject the robot body to bear human limitations. Give the robot extra arms with 20 tentacle fingers, wings with a propulsion system, one 360 eye, 8 multi-terrain legs that turn into fins when needed, a broad horizontal body to carry baggage, a mounted shoulder cannon, etc etc etc. And make it 3 feet tall to squeeze in tiny places, but with a chance to stretch to 10 feet to get that cat down from the tree. Trying to make it behave and look human is such a waste of time and resources for 99 out of 100 tasks. A human-like android is like a swiss army knife that only has a corkscrew and a toothpick. Make the robot look as what it is: an automated multi-tasking tool (unless you want it for sex, as it's been mentioned). We romanticize androids too much!

But that is the realist in me. The SF fan in me wants hyper-real I-don't-know-if-this-guy-is-human type of android. Just because.
 

Cathbad

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#12
Can't say I agree with your assessment of humans, @Ihe . Your primary reason seems to describe most animals.

But the Number 1 Reason to create androids/robots in our own image is...

Because we want to. Have you seen the call for those already created? Yes, we could make them "better"... but for the most part, we don't want to.

I think we are looking for companions/partners, rather than "Something Better".
 

goldhawk

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#13
But we have intelligence, and the reason we evolved intelligence is BECAUSE we were weak compared to most organisms around us--that is the only (veiled) advantage our kind of bodies had over everything else.
No, it's not the only advantage. We can run farther than any other animal. When it comes to long-distance running, humans are the best.
 

sknox

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#15
The primary reason to build humanoid androids is because we have built the world to fit our bodies. The best form, for example, for a household servant would be the human form because they would be best suited to move around, open drawers, and use our tools. Efficiency isn't the relevant variable, suitability is.

Another reason is anthropomorphism. We humans are most comfortable dealing with humans. That's why we respond better to robot voices that sound human rather than ones that sound "like a computer." As I noted above, there will be plenty of places for other robotic forms (there already are), but the human shape will be well-suited for far more things than sex.
 

Stephen Palmer

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#16
It would be interesting - and a challenge - to write a story about a conscious AI who was utterly non-android like. That wouldn't be the same as an alien, as the AI would be constructed by humans, in human culture. I guess the tricky bit would be thinking about human/AI interaction without thinking about aliens.
 

goldhawk

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#18
It would be interesting - and a challenge - to write a story about a conscious AI who was utterly non-android like. That wouldn't be the same as an alien, as the AI would be constructed by humans, in human culture. I guess the tricky bit would be thinking about human/AI interaction without thinking about aliens.
Do you mean Bolos, originally by Keith Laumer, now being written by David Weber?
 

Toby Frost

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#19
a lot of male writers struggle to write about female characters without defining them in sexual terms.
I almost didn't include Luv because she is generally dressed in an "attractive" and impractical way: high heels, skirt etc. But although she is clearly meant to be attractive to men (or to herself, in the sense of wanting to feel good by looking attractive), her primary function is brutal dirty work. I suspect a real machine, with no concepts of sex drive or self-esteem, would wear the most functional clothing available. Luv, being a modified human, probably has different priorities.


I think one of the standard assumptions about robots is that they will be the victims of gross human cruelty - eg the scene in A.I. where rednecks cheer as robots are dismembered. That does rather assume, though, that people will automatically indulge their baser natures, which they may not do, depending on who's in charge. It seems more likely to me that someone will look at a pile of dismembered robots as they get melted down and think "Hmm, this looks a bit bad" and do something about it. And that, to me, is a more interesting story.

Sorting all this out culturally and legally is going to be great fun. I'm convinced we are in the process of re-defining what "human" means.
My day job is in law, and I can promise that it will be a long, wild ride (as far as lawyers go, which means that there will be a lot of paperwork and some large fees). I suspect that in the future we will be more inclined to view sophisticated machines as something more like pets. However, there's always the question of how they'll view us if we don't programme them properly... There's also the possibility that androids won't be separate units with separate minds, but linked by some kind of cloud. Until it gets hacked, of course.
 

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