Monday, June 26, 2006

Dating Androids

The newest issue of SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN MIND has an article about a humanoid robot built by a Japanese designer. She looks like a very pretty Asian woman. The object of the project is apparently to make an android with whom people will feel, as much as possible, that they are interacting with a human being. I was disappointed to learn that the robot doesn't, in fact, carry on a conversation. She has a repertoire of programmed responses. She's essentially a highly advanced analogue of the Disneyland animatronic figures. It seems the field of artificial intelligence hasn't yet reached the point where a computer complex enough to pass the Turing test can fit into a human-size body. Before discussing the robot's capabilities, the article gave some background on the Turing test -- whether one can tell by conversing with an unseen "person" whether that person is human or a computer. If one can't unmask the computer by talking with it, so the theory goes, the computer is intelligent. Remember Eliza, the psychologist program that "reflected" the subject's feelings back in dialogue that, up to a point, was convincingly realistic? E.g., if you said, "My father didn't understand me," the program would say, "Tell me more about your family." However, if you said, "I believe all things are relative," the program would probably respond with the same sentence! Years ago we had a similar program on our home computer. The kids discovered that if you said, "I need/want [blank," the "doctor" would respond, "I am not here to serve your need for [blank]." They spent many fun hours putting ever more outrageous things in the blank. They also discovered that if you told the doctor, "Say [blank]," he'd obey. So they would fill in that blank by typing numbers 20 or 30 digits long and listen to the voice program pronouncing them. Anyway, this new robot doesn't do anything like that. She does, however, according to the reporter who interviewed her creator for the magazine, give a fairly convincing impression of a live woman. The inventor mentioned that her eye movements aren't natural enough yet. For that, he'll need a larger body to hold the hardware and software. Therefore, his next robot is going to be a man, probably a duplicate of himself.

Intimacy between human beings and robots or androids, of course, goes back a long way in science fiction, to the pulp classic "Helen O'Loy" and probably further. Robert Heinlein has computers in TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE who decide they want to become human and move their personalities and some of their memories -- of course there wouldn't be nearly enough space for all the memories -- into cloned bodies. I've never written a robot or android story myself, but I think these characters certainly fall under the "alien" theme -- the most interesting kind of alien, to me, the kind who is enough like us to identify with but intriguingly different, with a skewed perspective on human existence.

Margaret L. Carter


  1. I don't think I'd ever tackle it, for one reason: Ms. Tanith Lee

    She wrote what I consider to be the ultimate android / human novel in The Silver Metal Lover, and if I don't feel I could surpass it, then I stay out of the water. I don't want to be mediocre or derivative.

  2. Didn't Ellen Fisher have an android hero in Never Love A Stranger?

    I think I remember Johanna Lindsay's heroine had a loyal robot that frequently offered to serve her ... Was it in Warrior's Woman?

    Personally, I don't want a dildo with legs.

    Moreover, after some of my interactions with call center robots (have you heard the Charles Schwab one... Hmmm I didn't quite get that...?) I feel less and less open-minded about wanting to talk to a computer.

    Best wishes,

  3. Note that these books and stories were written long -- LONG before such things were scientifically possible.

    Consider this together with Linnea Sinclair's post Why Do SF Readers Go Boldly ... Everywhere But The Bedroom? And my comment on that.

    This is an amazing co-blog! Margaret came up with the perfect example to illustrate my point before I even wrote my comment!

    The stories we remember are the ones where the futurology was sound, and meticulously done.

    What SF afficionados object to in the SF-Romance is the lack of that meticulous futurology. When it is there, nobody objects to the relationships -- they give the book awards! Or at the very least, make it controversial which also sells books.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  4. Jacqueline, I wish writing excellent SF and excellent romance was a guarantee of acceptance but sadly, that's not the case. I've come across a few sites/blogs where it was posited that Asimov was rolling over in his grave because Catherine Asaro was prez of SFWA. And Lord knows, Asaro--being a PhD and all--can write science. She also writes romance. But the fact that she does put relationships in her books damned her in the eyes of these SF readers. ~Linnea

  5. In Asimov's The Gods Themselves (which I seem to mention often) there were three sexes needed to procreate, and they did.

    Once this parallel world's beings were adults, they were "Hard Ones" and lacked the necessary physical flexibility to procreate.

    Linnea do you think the SF community is unaware of this book? Or did Asimov not intend for The Gods Themselves to be taken seriously?

  6. Maybe I'm in the minority here but I find myself hesitating over the phrase "meticulous futurology." I think there's a place for writers who aren't necessarily scientists or even science afficionados. That's why it's called science fiction, not science fact. I mean, I read science fiction to be transported, not to be bogged down in mechanics or quantum theory.

    I think the most important thing is to tell your story persuasively. Believing in what you're writing is paramount. If you do that and you don't have glaring inconsistencies, then the reader will embrace your premise.