We are the robots

Some authors spend their careers skip­ping from one theme to anoth­er. Others, like Richard Evans, con­cen­trate on one. His first nov­el, called Machine Nation, was pub­lished in 2002, and ima­gined a near future in which the philo­soph­ic­al ques­tions sur­round­ing robot­ic life are begin­ning to press. In sub­sequent robot books — Robophobia and Exilium — he has con­tin­ued to invest­ig­ate these issues with­in a thrill­er frame­work.

Richard is unusu­al in that he is par­tic­u­larly ded­ic­ated to real­ism in his books. Not only the real­ism of the com­pu­ta­tion­al dif­fi­culty of reach­ing for a cup and grasp­ing it, but also the dif­fi­culties that we would face in a soci­ety that includes robots. How dis­tant is per­son­hood, with all its con­com­it­ant rights, from a notion of robot­ic exist­ence? Does human-like beha­viour val­id­ate phys­ic­al­ism in social sci­ences such as psy­cho­logy?

His latest book, Exilium, fea­tures char­ac­ters from the first two and extends the themes of ali­en­a­tion and life as prop­erty. It is a crack­ing read and pub­lished by Figo Books.

Richard was kind enough to answer some of my ques­tions about the book.

Copyright (c) Richard EvansFirst off, one of the most strik­ing things about your book is its cov­er, which depicts an android with his skull miss­ing, reveal­ing an elec­tron­ic brain. Can you tell us a little about how this cov­er came about?

Ben Campbell, the cov­er artist, had worked on the Robophobia cov­er so it was nat­ur­al to go back to him for this one as well. This concept was actu­ally one that we dis­cussed but didn’t use for Robophobia, think­ing it was too strong, but this time some­thing more strik­ing works well with the con­tent of the book.

Can you tell us how this book, and your earli­er books, came to be in print?

Thanks largely to the Arts Council. Between 2003 and 2006, Arts Council England were good enough to fund me to go to MIT in Boston to research Robophobia, they then paid for a lot of the mar­ket­ing of that book and gave me a ‘writ­ing time’ grant for Exilium. A bit uncon­ven­tion­al, and not a case of easy money as it might sound because fund­ing bids are quite a detailed piece of work. It’s a worth­while route for writers to fol­low though — at the very least the pro­cess helps you really think about why you’re doing what you’re doing.

How would you describe Exilium?

A nov­el about machine empathy and the scope of android con­scious­ness.

Exilium is cer­tainly an effect­ive thrill­er, in the sense that the pace is rap­id. At anoth­er level, how­ever, you do spend some time dis­cuss­ing and imply­ing inter­est­ing philo­soph­ic­al ideas. Do you see a ten­sion between these com­pon­ents?

There is a ten­sion between plot and philo­sophy but I hope I’ve been able to play one off against the oth­er. The themes in the book are very import­ant to me per­son­ally and where­as with Robophobia I felt the drama per­haps took centre stage, this time I wanted the philo­soph­ic­al ele­ments to be more dom­in­ant, though played out through the scen­ari­os that the char­ac­ters find them­selves in. I worked with an edit­or through­out the writ­ing of the book and this allowed not only crit­ic­al feed­back but also the oppor­tun­ity to really think about how the book was struc­tured and what I wanted it to be.

Exilium fol­lows your first book, Machine Nation, and its fol­low-up, Robophobia. To what extent do read­ers new to work need to read those earli­er books in order for the plot of Exilium to make sense?

Hopefully not at all. The three books are quite dif­fer­ent in tone and writ­ing style, so the char­ac­ters change and to me, this is quite reflect­ive of life and how indi­vidu­als change as you know them. You can dip in and out of the char­ac­ters’ lives in each of the books — they are not epis­od­ic and I don’t neces­sar­ily like the idea of a tri­logy with cliff­hangers. Each story is self-con­tained and though Alex and Kim remain in all three books, each finds them at a dif­fer­ent point, with dif­fer­ent pri­or­it­ies and rela­tion­ships.

The back­story of Exilium — i.e. our imme­di­ate future — is quite elab­or­ated. Did you con­cen­trate on expli­citly artic­u­lat­ing a ‘future earth’ in which to place your nar­rat­ive, or did you make it up as you went along? 🙂

Loads of research. Particularly with regard to the cli­mate change scen­ari­os. When I star­ted the book in 2006, sci­ent­ists were say­ing that the North Pole might be ice-free in sum­mer in around 50 years time. By the time I fin­ished the book, they were say­ing the North Pole would be ice free in 10 years time! The oth­er big part of the story is the Isolation Zone around New York, which is a dir­ect mir­ror of the Exclusion Zone around Chernobyl — it was the 20th anniversary of that dis­aster in 2006, and the imagery — a place where human beings were for­bid­den to go — was quite com­pel­ling.

You slip between third- and first-per­son view­points in Exilium. I’m par­tic­u­larly inter­ested in the view­point you take when the char­ac­ter is robot­ic. When a robot exper­i­ences pain or love, your writ­ing style sug­gests that these are exper­i­enced in a way that is almost pre­cisely ana­log­ous to humans. Is there such an over­lap between your robots and us humans, or is this simply the most effect­ive way of writ­ing these pas­sages?

It’s a bit of both I think. Kismet, one of the robots I went to see at MIT, had ‘drives’ for human com­pan­ion­ship and play — one effect of this was that if it saw a human face it would call that per­son to it, and the robot would enter homeo­stas­is if a per­son was around. So this to me was an example of the robot hav­ing a basic level of emo­tion, per­haps akin to what a baby exper­i­ences when its moth­er or fath­er is near. The baby doesn’t have any con­scious under­stand­ing of rela­tion­ships or lan­guage but it knows that, usu­ally, mum and dad being nearby is a good thing.

The oth­er aspect to switch­ing between first and third per­son is to height­en the impres­sion that what a robot exper­i­ences, it will exper­i­ence in real time, without the nar­rat­ive that we humans some­times have accom­pa­ny­ing our actions.

Some of the robots in this story are made by a com­pany called BioMimetica. Where do you stand on the notion that these robots are not alive in the sense of con­tain­ing the ‘magic spark’ that humans often think they them­selves are ignited by?

I think that what we should have a broad­er under­stand­ing of what we con­sider ‘alive’. In Japan, there is more famili­ar­ity with the notion of anim­ism or that life is present in all things, anim­ate or inan­im­ate. I per­son­ally don’t see why a robot isn’t alive. I went to see a female android in Osaka last year and when I got to the lab, she was off. A flick of a switch and she was as anim­ate as the next per­son. So is the android dead when it’s off, alive when it’s on? Or do machines exist in some third state? The ‘magic spark’ idea has a lot to do with reli­gion and the concept of the soul — a deeply held but sub­ject­ive concept — and if we take god out of the equa­tion, then it’s pos­sible to say that robots have many of the char­ac­ter­ist­ics we think of as per­tain­ing to life. They are going bey­ond mere func­tion towards hav­ing pur­pose, beha­viours, physiology and basic emo­tions. Indeed, one cur­rent area of research is that robots will per­form bet­ter if they have emo­tions — i.e. so that they will be more com­mit­ted to their tasks…

Throughout this book, and the pre­vi­ous one, Robophobia, I got a strong sense of an allegory between the human-robot rela­tion­ship and his­tor­ic­al (alas, even con­tem­por­ary) human-slave rela­tion­ships. If this cor­res­pond­ence is true, how far can the ana­logy be stretched?

The word robot is from the Czech word robota and means ‘slave’ or ‘forced labour’. I think, giv­en how dom­in­ant social groups have exploited those who are dif­fer­ent through­out his­tory there is a great danger that should androids become wide­spread, we will treat them as a slave class, for work, sex and war. As an aside, one of the reas­ons the stor­ies are set in Boston is that’s city’s his­tor­ic­al role in end­ing the slave trade.

One of the inter­est­ing drives behind two of the prot­ag­on­ists (Kim and Alex) is that they have been designed to love one anoth­er; their cre­at­or inser­ted mech­an­isms that per­mits them to feel relief, pleas­ure and com­pan­ion­ship in the pres­ence of each oth­er. It might be argued that humans find them­selves in a some­what sim­il­ar pos­i­tion, where bonds like love could be based on pat­terns that exist in our head because our genes are advant­aged by their exist­ence. If so, does this reduce what we mean by love? Can the robot equi­val­ent be called love, even if it is evid­enced by ‘love like’ beha­viour?

That is a crack­ing ques­tion. Maybe it’s love if the per­son / robot feel­ing it thinks it’s love. It’s very inter­est­ing why we find par­tic­u­lar people attract­ive, espe­cially if it’s a case of when we ‘know’ they are no good for us, or that the rela­tion­ship is destruct­ive in some way. I have a robot dog that recog­nises my face and calls my name if it hasn’t seen me for a while. Is that need? Is it miss­ing me? Or is it merely fol­low­ing a sub­routine that tells it to do x if y hap­pens? This could be applied to some human rela­tion­ships too. I think bio­chem­istry and sub­con­scious beha­viour pat­terns have a big say in how we relate to each oth­er, and per­haps some­times we mis­take these physiolo­gic­al and psy­cho­lo­gic­al drives for love, or lov­ing rela­tion­ships. This is not to say I don’t think love exists, just that it’s anoth­er word in need of fur­ther defin­i­tion.

Exilium can be pur­chased here. And why not sub­scribe to Richard’s blog? It con­tains lots of robot-related good­ies.

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

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