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  • Writer's pictureNancy Nemes

The humanoid robot as a distraction manoeuvre

By guest author: Dr. Isabella Hermann - Ms. AI Ambassador for AI & Politics

Robots in science fiction films often resemble humans and strive to become even more human. But why actually is this so? It’s simply because we humans use film robots to recreate human dramas. Robots in films therefore tell us little about technical progress or the pressing challenges of digitalization and artificial intelligence, but all the more about ourselves.


Whether the Replicants from Blade Runner, the model T-800 from Terminator, Andrew from

Bicentennial Man, Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, David from A.I., Ava from Ex Machina, the Cylons from Battlestar Galactica or the Hosts in Westworld - they all have a humanoid appearance and many strive to become truly human including feelings and consciousness. But how could a machine based on logic, whose goal is optimization, even come up with the idea of wanting to become human? From the machine's point of view, humans should rather appear as a deficient being that breaks down quickly, both physically and mentally, and has a tendency to self-destruction. If I were a robot, I would try not to become human.

And of course, no robot aspires to be human. It's the authors and filmmakers, the readers and the audience, it's us who anthropomorphize robots. Because we - especially in the West - share the widespread hubris that man is the crown of either creation or evolution, and that other intelligent beings are necessarily regarded as human-like, so they should look and act like human beings. This includes a binary gender, although a classification in "man" or "woman" is not necessary in most cases when building a robot (except for sex robots). This culminates in the fact that the film robots are also played by real people.

This shows us that although the films play against the background of current technological

developments, they are not about technology per se. The human robots and robots played by humans tell us about human dramas. On the one hand, there is the "Frankenstein Complex", which was coined by science fiction author Isaac Asimov. The term means the longing of humans to create a living or conscious creature, but at the same time the fear that this own creature will grow over our heads, that we will lose control and ultimately be dominated by it - as in the Frankenstein story, the Golem myth or the genetic experiment Dren from the film Splice. When it comes to robots, this primal fear is exemplified in the Terminator series, where the future Skynet computer system plans to destroy humanity as a whole and, for this purpose, sends humanoid killer robots into the past of our then present to prevent the birth of the later revolutionary leader of humans against the machines or to kill him as a child.

On the other hand, robots are also regarded as a projection canvas for our psychological and social sensitivities. They are perfect film characters, because as artificial learning systems, they can be used to tell the ultimate coming of age story as if under a magnifying glass. The technical component offers a whole bouquet of possibilities for questioning ourselves and our society: Data from the spaceship Enterprise must deal with his initially non-existent and later excessive feelings, the Bicentennial Man embodied by Robin Williams must learn that it is part of human nature to be mortal, the tragic figure of the little android David from Steven Spielberg's A.I. is rewarded for his perseverance only after he has endured much suffering and rejection, in Battlestar Galactica the line between "human" friends and "cylon" enemies blurs, and Ava from Ex Machina emancipates herself from her victim role and overcomes her tormentor.

So, science fiction films with robots tell us a lot about humans, but very little about robots and even less about artificial intelligence. And that's how you should see those films. Because even if the real existing robot "Sophia" by Hanson Robotics was already allowed to chat with Merkel, the Japanese roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro builds androids with his image to represent him at lectures or there is an entire brothel with sex robots in Barcelona, we certainly don't have to be afraid of the robots seizing power. They are a marketing gag and not much more than programmed databases.

What we should be dealing with is not an abstract competition between humans and robots

conjured up by films and media. What’s relevant is what AI systems do within societies and how they can disadvantage certain social groups if we do not regulate their functioning and use in advance. Will inequalities in companies and authorities be consolidated if more and more automated systems are used? Will AI-based scoring models punish people who are already among the weaker in society? Do computer-based prediction models carry prejudices further into the future? We should not let humanoid robots distract us from these really important questions.

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