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An Imagined Future Speaks In 'Talking To Robots'


An imagined future speaks in David Ewing Duncan's <em>Talking to Robots.</em>
Westend61, Getty Images/Westend61

An imagined future speaks in David Ewing Duncan's Talking to Robots.

We've been talking to robots for a while now.

In the decade or so since Siri and her compatriots first appeared, we've all gotten pretty used to having conversations with computers in various forms. While your Alexa doesn't look much like a Cylon (the scary metal kind or hotty flesh kind) now, it seems like it's just a matter of time of time before we'll be talking with all kinds of robots — including those that look just like us.

Time, robots and conversations are at the heart of David Ewing Duncan's new book Talking to Robots: Tales from Our Human-Robot Futures. And if you want to see what that future might look like, Duncan's book is a fun place to start.

The book is written as a series of essays by an unnamed future historian about the rise of the bots in all their forms. The 26 chapters cover a lot of ground: Teddy Bear Bot; Doc Bot; Beer Bot; Warrior Bot; Politician Bot; God Bot and, of course Sex Bot. But Duncan is not really writing science-fiction as most of the chapters include interviews with scientists, engineers and other experts alive today (also known as the Early Robot Era or ERE). This allows Duncan to playfully explore the outlines, and outer limits, of far future human-robot relations while grounding those journey's in what's happening now.

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The use of real world (or ERE) experts pays off when it delivers surprising visions of our robot future. In the chapter "Sex (Intimacy) Bot" Duncan begins with the story you expect. People (OK, men) trying to design robots that are really just high-tech sex toys. This includes companies like Realbotix, based in New Jersey, selling "Harmony AI" — a highly customizable sex-doll-bot with "next-gen artificial intelligence." But after detailing emerging phenomena like Japanese men who want to marry their sex-doll-bots, Duncan goes beyond mechanics to ask how bots might serve the deeper need for intimacy. Interviewing Australian sex-tech relationship expert Bryony Cole, the chapter asks more expansive questions leading to the idea of an "intimacy bot" which Duncan describes as "a super-smart adviser and guide that would combine the insights of therapists, goddesses, and poets with a handy guide to all the possibilities around sex, with or without machines."

The darker aspects of our emerging future make its appearance in chapters like "Warrior Bot." Duncan provides a pretty chilling vision of the strides the military is already making along the road to fully autonomous killing machines. For this chapter, one of his guides is retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Robert Latiff, who is also a physicist. As Latiff explains, the military doctrine governing robot weapon systems, like drones, is that there must always be a human in charge. This leads Duncan in a prolonged exploration of what could happen if that doctrine were dropped. Should we try, as Latiff suggests, to build military robots that include algorithms for ethics? That, of course, begs the question of whose ethics gets programmed into our warrior bots. Duncan also goes past questions of just Terminator-style killing machines to explore biological hacking as a weapon, like using the president's DNA to build an undetectable virus that only targets him or her. Threats in cyber space get a focus as well, since future wars might be won without ever firing shot in the real world.

The best part of Talking to Robots is it does not take itself too seriously. Discussing the loss of jobs to robots, Duncan describes the idea of easy work retraining with the equivalent of a knowing smirk:

"The automate-and-then-reboot‑a‑person's‑job scenario actually worked remarkably well, until it didn't. Many of us recall when the jobs began to disappear too fast for laid-off baristas to find work in the amazing new industries that were supposed to pop up as robots took over."

Unfortunately, Duncan's central conceit — that these chapters are a history written from far in the future — often fails him. The structural demands of keeping the viewpoint anchored in the future while using interviews with experts alive today proves to be too much in many of the chapters, and the "future history" enterprise just collapses on itself. Other times, the research for the book seems a glib. In the "God Bot" chapter, Duncan interviews Brian Greene and uses String Theory as some ultimate frontier of physics. A little bit of research would have shown him that most physicists have been pretty disillusioned with String Theory as a "theory of everything" for awhile now. That means whatever cosmic thoughts God Bots think about in the future, they probably won't be String Theory.

But taken as a whole, Duncan's book holds a lot of pleasures. It's funny and broad and, in its way, asks important questions. Interviewee Sunny Bates concisely sums up the whole bot-human situation in the job-loss chapter: "Not long ago, people were optimistic that things would be better. Now we're wondering: How do we embrace the future, lean into it or lean away from it, or run away from it?"

I guess it depends on how fast the robots pursuing you can run.

Adam Frank is an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester and author of Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth. You can find more from Adam here: @adamfrank4.

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