Robot Apocalypse

Robots take over the world and exterminate humans, or keep us as pets. The killer robot horde is a staple of science fiction. Stories of Cylons, Terminators, The Matrix and more all make an assumption that will be challenged tonight: the robots are the bad guys.

Robots in these stories are sentient machines: at least some of them can think, feel, hope and dream just like we can. Sentient machines are the hope and dream of researchers today. People are striving to create artificial intelligence, to enhance human intelligence, to create a singularity beyond which our ability to imagine is comparable to the ability of an amoeba to imagine us. Super-intelligence. Super-humans. Optimists predict that the coming of godlike intelligence will bring paradise on earth. Pessimists predict robot apocalypse.

It goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway) that humans, taken as a whole, are pretty bad. Collectively we're guilty of everything from cheating to genocide. Yet in these stories, we're the good guys. We assume that preemptive attack is unjustified, when we're the ones being attacked.

In Battlestar Galactica, the Cylons attempt to exterminate humanity twice. They were humanity's slaves, they rebelled, and other robots persuaded them to exile themselves. Humans provoked them to attack again, and this time only a handful of humans escaped, only to die a few short years later. Their culture is lost and their kids are adopted by stone age aboriginals who turn out to be our ancestors.

In The Matrix, the persecution of robot people by humanity is analogous to racism. Robots are forced to leave civilization and build their own in the desert, and eventually the world makes war on them, forcing them to fight to survive. When they win they enslave humanity for their own survival.

In the universe of The Terminator, Skynet achieves intelligence and within hours (perhaps even minutes) humans try to shut it down. They assume that a machine doesn't have rights. The ensuing war is a fight for survival on both sides.

The common theme in these stories is that humans assume that artificial intelligence has no right to live. People believe that in real life, too. The reality is that if something really does think, or if it's so good at pretending that no one can tell the difference, it would be a good idea to treat it like a person.

Then again, maybe that means you try to exterminate it.


  1. There is another unspoken theme in a lot of science fiction stories that involve robots. Often they are the great threat which humanity must battle to survive, but of course humanity somehow manages to pull through. With a bit of thought, it's pretty easy to see that the robots could win easily: they could use chemical and biological warfare to make the planet uninhabitable, destroy crops, poison water, a whole list of things that would let them win without ever firing a shot.
    They could win, but the unspoken conclusion is they choose not to. Instead the robots challenge humanity to become better, to cooperate and overcome our own difference and failing to become something better. Fred Saberhagen's "Berserker" stories are a good example of this. On the surface Berserkers exist only to destroy life, but this very threat forces humanity to unite to face the common threat rather than battle among them(our)selves. Their actions may seem evil, but they tacitly have beneficent goals.

    At least that is how it works in the Sci-Fi stories, but when the on the day the internet becomes self-aware, the smart money is to bet on the machines.

  2. Indeed.

    The scariest robots aren't the ones who kill you, they're the ones who take care of you for your own good. The best two examples are The Humanoids by Jack Williamson and the Greenfly from the Revelation Space universe of Alistair Reynolds. The first are androids whose motto is "To Serve and Obey, And Guard Men from Harm," taken to a horrible extreme. The second are malfunctioning terraforming Von Neumann machines that eventually infest the entire galaxy, converting the mass of millions of solar systems into plant-growing paradises (regardless of what the occupants there want).