Culture Shock: Rage against the machine – why we don’t have to let the robots win

From iPhones to Daft Punk, technology has made us something more than human and less than people. But there is another vision of the world

Let’s play a game, a brief intelligence test. Task 1: I have K at my K1, and no other pieces. You have only K at K6 and R at R1. It is your move. Tell me what you play. Task 2: Add 34,957 to 70,764. Task 3: Please write me a sonnet about the Forth Bridge.

Thank you. That is the end of the Turing Test, designed to work out if we are talking to a computer. If you answered R-R8, mate to task 1, 105,621 to task 2, and any variation of “No” to task 3, you passed: you are not a machine. Probably. Actually, it’s getting so much harder to tell.

At least that’s the impression you get if you take a look around your local shopping mall, where the young and old shuffle around, nose deep in devices, in a way that would have amused George A Romero. Or on your commute, where passengers ignore each other within digital cocoons more protective than any OtterBox. Or perhaps at the dinner table, where any conversation can be enhanced by consulting a wireless oracle, or deferred as we peer into little screens to communicate with friends or argue with strangers.

In culture this obsession has been given a humanoid form: the robot, a figure that, like the vampire, the zombie or the alien, is an emblem of human fears and fantasies.


In the cinema we've just had Ex-Machina, Alex Garland's neat addition to the sci-fi subgenre, in which Domhnall Gleeson plays a low-ranking coder selected to go on retreat with the guru of his ginormous tech company, a genius on the verge of perfecting a robot with artificial intelligence. "That's the history of gods," Gleeson tells his Zuckerbergian overlord, who does not disagree.

It follows Spike Jonze's Her, a film about a man who falls for his OS, to nobody's great surprise. And these anticipate forthcoming megabudget movies such as Avengers: Age of Ultron, in which an AI robot goes rogue and decides to wipe out both humanity and superhumanity. And that's before the return of the obedient bleeping bots of Star Wars. There is no escape.

You might think that theatre is some sort of analogue haven, but, actually, that's where all of this started. In 1920 the Czech writer Karel Capek introduced both the word and the concept in his play RUR. (The Czech robota has connotations of both labour and slavery; throw in robot rights, uprising and the destruction of the human race and you have the entire plot, not to mention that of the Terminator franchise, much of Wall-E, and the Flight of the Conchords song The Humans Are Dead.)

The Irish writer Simon Doyle is working on a sly new version of Capek's play for Pan Pan Theatre Company, entitled In the Long Run We Are All Dead, which glances forlornly at Keynesian economics, among other things. Man's permanent problem, anticipated Keynes, was "how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him". It's an idea as utopian as it is myopic, an unencumbered life in 2030 (or so) where the money looks after itself and the robots do the washing-up.

It’s fascinating how this fantasy is always swaddled in guilt. You can feel the pangs of anxiety coming off the sci-fi novelist Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, which may be summarised as: “Whatever you do, please don’t kill us.” That is near enough the same plea, stated or implied, of Victorian fiction during the age of empire, or antebellum American fiction, when easily subjugated workers could also be expected to toil without serious objection. Robots, however, made in the sheenier, edgier image of man, are things without history, property or needs, creations made to please and to pleasure.

Another upcoming piece of theatre, Love+, which had a work-in-progress showing in January, saw robots as a fundamentally lonely creation, a mirror of our desires for cleanliness, conversation or sex, capable of providing everything we want except personality and challenge. Sexbots. Your standard pleasure model.

The four laws of robot creation, we might offer, are loneliness, laziness, profit and playing God. Or, of course, for projection. In Frequency 783, a recent piece about ageing and the future by the Irish theatremakers Brokentalkers, a woman sang a plaintive song called Michael, about her imagined robot carer, where each affirmation rang out like a sorrowful rebuke to an absent husband.

The truth is even sadder, understood perfectly by Daft Punk's robot-suited anonymous musicians and the reifying title of their last album, Random Access Memories, or, with a more regal sobriety, by Damon Albarn's song Everyday Robots: technology has made us something more than human and less than people.

One of the more urgent polemics of the past few years is Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget. A digital guru himself, Lanier writes of what might have been – an unruly, eccentric internet before the monitoring, packaging and degraded discourse of Web 2.0 – and the likely outcome of free content, digital serfdom and machine thinking replacing personhood. The fear of the robot uprising is everywhere you look, yet there is still a world outside your windows. Humanity can fight back.