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IT Confidential: What Makes Robots So Evil? Don't Ask.

Because I love robots. Robots are good-natured, helpful, unselfish, unquestioning, unflappably upbeat, and unfailingly cute. Robots are more entertaining and less demanding than pets, more loyal and less inquisitive than spouses.
What makes robots so evil?" some people ask. I never ask.

Because I love robots. Robots are good-natured, helpful, unselfish, unquestioning, unflappably upbeat, and unfailingly cute. Robots are more entertaining and less demanding than pets, more loyal and less inquisitive than spouses. Robots want to do only good things for their human benefactors--to build cars, vacuum floors, act in movies.

Take, for example, this news story from last week: "Growing Bomb Threats Spur Robot Development". Robots of all stripes--ambulatory, airborne, automotive--are an integral part of the war on terror.

So it's unsettling that recent movies such as I, Robot have portrayed robots as deceitful, dishonest, even vengeful and murderous. But that portrayal is part of a long tradition. The word "robot" was introduced in 1921 in the play RUR (Rossum's Universal Robots), by Czech novelist Karel Capek. RUR is a dystopian story about automatons looking to usurp the role of human beings. That theme is repeated time and again in stories about robots, from Gort in the movie The Day The Earth Stood Still ("Klaatu barada nikto") to HAL in 2001 ("Sorry, Dave").

Why do most people presume robots have the potential for--even a strong tendency toward--evil? The Evil Robot represents human beings' basic distrust of technology, their uneasiness with the facility for moral choice, their paranoia about their place in the pecking order of the universe.

Now comes a book entitled How To Survive A Robot Uprising: Tips On Defending Yourself Against The Coming Rebellion (Bloomsbury, 2005). It was disconcerting enough to find the book is not a work of fiction (it is nonfiction tinged with satire). Imagine my confusion and consternation when I found out the author, Daniel H. Wilson, had just completed his doctoral degree in robotics at Carnegie Mellon University. How could a seemingly enlightened scientist pander to the misperceptions of the masses? Worse yet, are the groves of academia populated with anti-robot roboticists?

I decided to confront Wilson directly, so I drove to Pittsburgh to interview him. "Why do you hate robots?" I asked him.

He was flummoxed. "I don't hate robots," he responded defensively. "I love robots." Then he added: "Even the ones that are evil."

Aha! I bore down on him: "If you love robots, why are they portrayed negatively in your book?" He responded that it was a ploy, that by using the clichés of Hollywood he could entertain as well as enlighten people on the development and capabilities of modern robots. He pointed out that robots are being developed to aid humans in the fields of health care, engineering, and bioscience, among many others. Also, he wanted to make one thing perfectly clear: "I personally don't believe that a robot uprising is on the way."

First thought: Is he telling the truth? Second thought: Is he ... a robot?

I'm still convinced Arnold Schwarzenegger is a robot. Think about it: He has no sense of humor, he can't lose that accent, and he looks good without his clothes on--at his age. If you know an interesting robot, or have an interesting industry tip, E-mail [email protected], or phone 516-562-5326.

Watch for a video version of my interview with the enigmatic Daniel H. Wilson on The News Show. It airs at noon ET every weekday, at www.TheNewsShow.tv or on informationweek.com.


To discuss this column with other readers, please visit John Soat's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about John Soat, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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