Why you secretly can't wait for the robot apocalypse

Contributed by
Dec 15, 2012

Calm down. Your GPS isn't faking directions to drop you off at a human organ reclamation plant. Your cell phone isn't secretly texting fake suicide notes to your boss. Heck, your toaster isn't even plotting to burn your breakfast. Like it or not, the robots in your life aren't plotting against you.

"Having a superintelligent AI suddenly show up on the scene and start killing everybody isn't going to happen," said Daniel H. Wilson, author of Robopocalypse. He grudgingly admitted his Ph.D. in robotics from Carnegie Mellon was a good reason to take his word on it. Still, his eyes twinkled when he added, "But it's a lot of fun to think about."

His dystopic novel of a robot uprising is so much fun to think about that DreamWorks has already optioned it for a movie to be directed by Steven Spielberg.

The biggest fear that sets a robot apocalypse apart from other doomsday scenarios is the sneaking suspicion that maybe we deserve it. After all, human history is a long saga of us treating one another horribly. "It's easy to define what a human being is, but it's hard to define what a person is. We assign personhood somewhat randomly. People have to fight to be recognized as a person, because a person is someone who has rights," said Wilson. Imagine the reaction if your electric toothbrush fell in love with a John Deere tractor and together they demanded the right to vote.

"I think it's more interesting to think of a robot apocalypse as an interim situation. We're making a smarter and smarter sort of god in a box. After a while, you start having to make tougher and tougher decisions about how much you're going to trust it, what you're going to use it for and whether it's lying to you. Also, if I wrote a book about humans and robots skipping through a field of daisies hand in pincer, it wouldn't be that interesting."

People love a good apocalypse, whether it's zombie hordes eating brains in New York, radiated lizards stomping through Tokyo, or robots destroying all of humanity. Wilson says we can't get enough of the mayhem because we've evolved to be fascinated by our own death.

"We love staying alive. It's great," said Wilson. "Why do we love Shark Week? Why are we so interested in poisonous insects? Why do we love dinosaurs with huge teeth? It's because we love to study the things that could kill us."

For a lot of people, robots top that terrifying list. "Today, it seems like technology is evolving faster and faster, and there's constantly some new thing we have to accommodate into our lives. It's scary. If you think about it, civilization is supported by this huge technological infrastructure that gets bigger every day. As the technology gets more advanced, the stakes go up. We have more to lose. You look at it and think, 'If I didn't have electricity, if I didn't have utilities or my car or my cellphone or my laptop, would my world crumble?'"

The natural, healthy, human response, according to Wilson, is to dwell on it, maybe even getting a little morose or obsessive until you feel like you've solved the problem. A really gripping apocalypse is like a good horror movie. "You like to picture yourself right there. You picture how you would survive—because of course you're going to survive the apocalypse. It's all the dumb people who are going to die, and you didn't like them anyway," said Wilson. "You get to rebuild civilization."

Rebuilding civilization is the fun part of thinking about an apocalypse. Wilson said while we're fascinated by things that can kill us and constantly wondering how we'll survive anything from a new boss to a robot uprising, we're also afraid of change. Without massive, life-altering events, we risk stagnation. "Sometimes things get destroyed in order to be rebuilt," said Wilson. That's something really beautiful about humankind. We get knocked down then we get up and we do it better because we don't want to get knocked down again. You can see that literally if you look at Japan. It's been deluged by tsunamis for all of history, and every time they build back and they build stronger."

Wilson said humans have nothing to fear from technology, because using tools is what defines us. Cheetahs evolved to run fast, but humans evolved to build things that can outrun a cheetah. Other than our big brains, we don't have much going for us. "We build tools. It's what we do to survive. As our tools get more complex, as our tools start thinking for themselves, sometimes we can get complacent. That's the human equivalent of a cheetah not running fast. It's wrong. We should always be building the next generation of technology. We should always hope that when we die the world is further along than when we were born."

Instead of a robot apocalypse, Wilson had two predictions for the future. "Ultimately, we will either blow ourselves up and everybody will die or we'll get off the planet and have some crazy destiny out there among the stars. I personally think it's our destiny to at least roll the dice, no matter what happens. Otherwise we're just sitting around waiting for a comet to kill us. We're better than that."

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