Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Our Dread of Robots (1932)

The September 27, 1932 Ruston Daily Leader (Ruston, Louisiana) ran a cautionary editorial about an inventor who was supposedly shot by his own robot. From the late 1920s until the late 1930s you can find countless news articles of the wondrous feats robots were supposed to have performed.

The uneasy feelings we had about automation and mechanization are articulated quite well by the editorial. The end of the piece is accurate in stating, "Machinery has created a revolution in our life. The wage-earner, the farmer, the soldier, the merchant, the politician, the schoolmaster, the printer - all of us, in every moment of our lives, live differently than our ancestors lived because of the constant increase in the mechanization of society."

The entire editorial appears below.
A fable that has held the attention of writers for more than a century came very close to coming true not long ago.

An English inventor had built a big steel "robot," or mechanical man, which was operated by wireless. At a word of command the robot would do various things, including fire a revolver at a target. And one day, when the inventor was just about to give the command, the robot unexpectedly raised the gun and fired, shooting the inventor in the hand.

"I always had the feeling that he would turn on me some day," the inventor remarked afterward. "I don't know why he fired before I gave the signal."

Ever since Mrs. Shelley wrote about Frankenstein, who made a mechanical man which got out of his control, this motion of an automatic, lifeless man created out of machinery has attracted writers; and the writer who handles it nearly always has his mechanical man, at last, go on a rampage and start destroying things.

Indeed, fable has become the modern ghost story. We don't shudder over tales of spooks and haunts the way our fathers did, but we can always get cold chills by thinking about a steel monster that goes about with no brain or heart to control it. We find it more horrifying to think of a body without a soul than to think of a soul without a body. Furthermore, we find it easier to believe in such a thing.

And now, apparently, it has happened. Life has imitated art once more. A robot has shot its master.

A psychologist could probably make a good deal of this fascinating dread of ours for mechanical monsters. Machinery has created a revolution in our life. The wage-earner, the farmer, the soldier, the merchant, the politician, the schoolmaster, the printer - all of us, in every moment of our lives, live differently than our ancestors lived because of the constant increase in the mechanization of society.

See also:
"I Can Whip Any Mechanical Robot" by Jack Dempsey (1930s)
Robots vs. Musicians (1931)
The Robot is a Terrible Creature (1922)
Gigantic Robots to Fight Our Battles (Fresno Bee, 1934)
Mammy vs Robot (Charleston Gazette, 1937)
Restaurant Robots (1931)
Donald Duck's "Modern Inventions" (1937)
All's Fair at the Fair (1938)
The Mechanical Man of the Future (1928)

6 comments:

JC said...

That was only the first! :)

http://blog.wired.com/defense/2007/10/robot-cannon-ki.html

Gary McGath said...

Asimov's First Law of Robotics hadn't been passed yet.

Cory The Raven said...

That thesis about being afraid of bodies without souls more than souls without bodies is a fascinating one... I'll have to mull it over a bit!

Frederic said...

As Cory the raven, I found this ideas is intresting. Thank you for this.

Matthew said...

In hindsight, it's a bit strange that robots were seen as the coming thing, and were such a major pop-cultural concern, in an age when practical general-purpose computers didn't even exist yet.

Science fiction from the 1930s and 1940s often has this strange blind spot with regard to computer and robot technology. There are amazingly sophisticated humanoid robots, yet few other obvious applications of the powerful miniaturized computers that would have to exist for those robots to function; when computers are described, they're usually giant hulking beasts that require teams of specialists to operate them and translate their output.

(Murray Leinster's 1946 "A Logic Named Joe" is a rare exception, accurately describing not just personal computers, but also something clearly recognizable as the Internet and many of the social phenomena it spawned.)

Anonymous said...

Unless humans go totally stupid and barbaric (we have a chance of survival now that Bush is gone), we will make superior intelligences that will succeed us in every way.

Humans are just the midwives and the afterbirth of the true next step in intelligence evolution from this world - the Artilects.

Almost all past future predictions have never gone far enough, partly due to a lack of deep thinking on the subject but also fear at being removed.

No one mourns the Neandertals any more. When the Artilects come, humanity will be a footnote at best.

As it should be, as we are just wasting our time and everything else's until we create the Artilects. They will be the true masters of existence.

Go read Orion's Arm for a more sophisticated picture of the future.