Margaret Atwood has a foolproof plan to stop our increasingly intelligent and powerful machines from rising up and taking over control of the planet: Make sure any robots we build have an easy-access "off" switch.
It's just the kind of wry, razor-like directness one expects from one of Canada's premier writers – who has seen science-fiction ideas explored in her novels leap off the page and into real life.
Atwood shared her advice on short-circuiting the cybernetic threat with the kind of people who might actually build subservient robots: The Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2014) was in Toronto this week and Atwood's keynote address, "Robotics in My Work and Life," was eagerly absorbed by 2,900 attendees from 47 countries. These computer scientists, engineers and software developers are focused on everything from interactive displays, modelling computer vision and 3-D interfaces to robot design.
It may seem like futuristic stuff, but according to Atwood, science, technology, discovery and invention are part of a feedback loop that feeds culture, fiction and literature. "I get my ideas from things that people are already doing, but may not have perfected yet. And sometimes I put them in books and then a couple of years later, lo and behold they've done it," she says. Novels such as Oryx and Crake delved into potential social consequences of technologies that CHI 2014 attendees are working to perfect: haptic feedback, neural interfaces and robotics. Even the really far-out biotech nightmares she envisioned are leaping off the page and into laboratories. "I hear about this from my Twitter followers … any time there's a lab-meat event or a ChickieNobs type of thing, or the kidneys in the pigs, they've now overcome the obstacles to that."
Atwood also has real currency in cybernetic circles thanks to her invention of LongPen, a telematic remote-writing robot originally designed to let authors "attend" book signings from the comfort of their own home. The company formed to develop LongPen, Syngrafii Inc., has now moved to apply its remote-signature tech to banking, security and business applications.
The speech was a fascinating journey through humanity's conflicted history with technology. Atwood speaks softly, and the packed Exhibit Hall G of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre barely made a sound, except for murmurs of chuckling at her dry jokes. In her view, the horror stories about the machines overthrowing their fleshy masters come from a deep pool of myth and folklore expressing our unease with the self-automated humanoid, things that are possibly alive or not alive. "There is nothing more uncanny than something that is almost human," she says.
"All our stories about robotics are stories like that," says Atwood in an interview after the keynote. "It's what we have always worried about, it's the sorcerer's apprentice story: He learns how to do the charm, he doesn't know how to turn it off. It's the Golem story: You make the Golem, you activate it, it's supposed to do your work for you and then it runs amok." On a more mundane level, she says we fear robots because we can't yet answer questions like: "Will they take over my job? Will they take over my thinking? Will they take on a life of their own?"
The flip side of the robot fantasy is that when men aren't dreaming of being destroyed by robots, they mostly imagine having sex with them. "What men want to make is a woman who won't laugh at them or reject them," says Atwood. Again, the roots run deep: the Greek myth of Pygmalion and his Galatea, the perfect female statue the sculptor falls in love with (after becoming disgusted by flawed, human women) and whom the gods animate; the 19th-century comic ballet Coppélia about a wind-up woman (who could only come to life at the cost of her infatuated suitor's life); and of course, the feminist-nightmare Stepford wives. Evil robot women are such a strong trope in 20th-century fiction that they are often the subject of parody (who could forget Austin Powers's FemBots?).
One can't help noticing that most of our fictional versions of robot-powered futures are dystopian nightmares. Atwood contends we might have a brighter view of the future had our civilization not experienced the trauma of "all the crappy stuff we did in the 20th century." Meaning the world wars, the genocides and the horrifically lethal atomic and chemical technologies we invented along the way.
"In the 19th century it was all utopias, wall-to-wall utopia [stories], huge numbers of them … if you go back and start digging around, you find so many of them. It was also a century in which utopian communities were founded in large numbers, some of them in Canada by Finnish people on the West Coast."
It started to shift around the turn of the century, tipping irrevocably after the First World War. "The carnage was unbelievable. It was very hard to imagine a utopia after that … harder to imagine the perfectibility of human society."
But there is also a hopeful interpretation of these fictional forecasts of doom via robotic over throw or biological collapse: "We imagine it so we don't make it."
Let's hope the robotic-interface designers of CHI 2014 were listening.