“[They] Otherwise React As Though They Were Dealing With Real Human Beings”


Many dark fictions about technology focus on machines going rogue and running amok, but couldn’t things progress as planned and still lead to trouble if we have poor priorities and make the wrong decisions?

On a 1979 Dick Cavett Show, Ira Levin was asked how he dreamed up the scenario for his chilling novel The Stepford Wives. He answered that after reading about the possibility of robotic domestic servants in Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, he wondered what would happen if we achieved that goal at a very high level. You know, if everything went according to plan.

Humanoid robots aren’t in our near future, but chatbots and digital assistants will be an increasing part of our lives in the short run. They may eventually get so good that we won’t know sometimes if we’re speaking to a human or not. Perhaps we will be aware, but that won’t stop us from speaking to them as if “they” were people. There will be a relationship. That’s the plan, anyhow.

Some excerpts on that topic from Alvin Toffler’s book:

Whether we grow specialized animals to serve us or develop household robots depends in part on the uneven race between the life sciences and the physical sciences. It may be cheaper to make machines for our purposes, than to raise and train animals. Yet the biological sciences are developing so rapidly that the balance may well tip within our lifetimes. Indeed, the day may even come when we begin to grow our machines. …

We are hurtling toward the time when we will be able to breed both super- and subraces. As Theodore J. Gordon put it in The Future, “Given the ability to tailor the race, I wonder if we would “create all men equal,’ or would we choose to manufacture apartheid? Might the races of the future be: a superior group, the DNA controllers; the humble servants; special athletes for the ‘games’; research scientists with 200 IQ and diminutive  bodies …” We shall have the power to produce races of morons or of mathematical savants. …

Technicians at Disneyland have created extremely life-like computer-controlled humanoids capable of moving their arms and legs, grimacing, smiling, glowering, simulating fear, joy and a wide range of other emotions. Built of clear plastic that, according to one reporter, “does everything but bleed,” the robots chase girls, play music, fire pistols, and so closely resemble human forms that visitors routinely shriek with fear, flinch and otherwise react as though they were dealing with real human beings. The purposes to which these robots are put may seem trivial, but the technology on which they are based is highly sophisticated. It depends heavily on knowledge acquired from the space program—and this knowledge is accumulating rapidly.

There appears to be no reason, in principle, why we cannot go forward from these present primitive and trivial robots to build humanoid machines capable of extremely varied behavior, capable even of “human” error and seemingly random choice—in short, to make them behaviorally indistinguishable from humans except by means of highly sophisticated or elaborate tests. At that point we shall face the novel sensation of trying to determine whether the smiling, assured humanoid behind the airline reservation counter is a pretty girl or a carefully wired robot.

The likelihood, of course, is that she will be both.

The thrust toward some form of man-machine symbiosis is furthered by our increasing ingenuity in communicating with machines. A great deal of much-publicized work is being done to facilitate the interaction of men and computers. But quite apart from this, Russian and American scientists have both been experimenting with the placement or implantation of detectors that pick up signals from the nerve ends at the stub of an amputated limb. These signals are then amplified and used to activate an artificial limb, thereby making a machine directly and sensitively responsive to the nervous system of a human being. The human need not “think out” his desires; even involuntary impulses are transmittable. The responsive behavior of the machine is as automatic as the behavior of one’s own hand, eye or leg.•