Posts Tagged ‘‘Robohunter’’

The Young Turks on Pizza Delivery Drivers Being Replaced by Driverless Cars

September 3, 2017

This is probably going to be the reality behind the driverless cars the car industry and the media have been hyping. In this short clip from The Young Turks, the hosts Ana Kasparian and Brett Ehrlich report and comment on the story that Domino’s Pizzas are planning to replace their pizza delivery people with driverless cars.

It’s only a trial run at the moment. They intend to go through their customers at random, and ask them if they’re happy with their pizza delivered by a driverless car instead. The vehicle will take a maximum of four pizzas to them. To get their orders, the customers will have to punch in a code into a keypad on the car.

After a bit of silly banter about the number of pizzas people usually order, they get down to discussing what this really represents. Kasparian says that when they usually talk about American jobs being lost, they’re usually reporting on corporate outsourcing. But automation is the other way in which people are losing their jobs in America. Kasparian she states that she isn’t against technological innovation, but points out that not only are people going to lose their jobs as pizza delivery staff, but they’re also going to lose an opportunity to acquire useful skills to succeed in a very competitive jobs market. She also states that we also need to give young people proper, affordable college education as well.

Domino’s has released a statement saying that they have at the moment 100,000 pizza delivery people. They hope that when this comes in, they will be able to find other positions within the company. The Turks end by saying that they hope so too.

To be fair, the BBC has carried news and documentary programmes, which forecast that in the coming decades, 1/3 of all retail jobs will be lost to automation. Nevertheless, whenever you see driverless cars appear, the overwhelming message is one of boundless enthusiasm, with the presenters raving about the technology. Clarkson went on a driverless truck on Top Gear, and went almost berserk with excitement when it started to make its way without human guidance.

Driverless trucks are due to be trialed on roads in Britain, according to a report in the I newspaper. They’re going to be tested in groups of three. I talked about this technology and its threats to jobs with a friend a little while ago. He told me that there are about 40,000 truckers in Britain, so that’s 40,000 people, who stand to lose their jobs.

Counterpunch has run an article on this, stating that there’s no desire for the cars from ordinary people. They’re being hyped and pushed by the insurance companies, who hope that their appearance and promotion as being safer than human driving will allow them to put up their premiums for people, who won’t use them.

What also struck me was how cold, lonely and impersonal the future represented by this type of automation is. In much SF depictions of an automated future, the machines performing human jobs also have something like human cognitive abilities and personalities. Long term 2000 AD readers will remember Dredd’s little robotic companion, Walter the Wobot. The character had a lisp and was a gentle soul, providing a contrast with the brutal machismo of Mega City 1’s toughest lawman. Or the robots in the Robohunter strip. These were extremely strong characters with all the traits, foibles and psychological failings of the human creators, including stupidity, thuggishness and all-round criminality. Like the God-Droid, the automatated underworld boss, a machine version of Marlon Brando with a sign stamped across its stomach reading ‘Omerta’, or the incendiary temperament of Molotov, the automatic cocktail-shaker and head of the Amalgamated Androids’ Union, who lectures Spade on the evils of human exploitation. Or Ro-Jaws, a chirpy, bolshie, foul-mouthed sewer droid, and his more dignified mate, the war-robot Hammerstein, and the moronic and sadistic Mek-Quake, the main characters in the Robusters strip, and its spin-off, ABC Warriors.

These fictional machines all had real, authentic characters. They had minds and characters like human beings, even if their bodies and brains were of metal and plastic. And so the strips’ writers could use them to make serious satirical points amidst the cartoon violence and mayhem. From the first, the ABC Warriors strip included a bitter commentary on the horrors of war, and the way soldiers lives were sacrificed by an officer and political class insulated from the actual fighting. The fact that robots were machines, with no rights, also allowed 2000 AD to explore real issues like slavery, racism, and institutionalized discrimination with deliberate, and sometimes very obvious parallels to the experience of Black Americans before Civil Rights.

But the real machines taking our jobs won’t even have personalities, friendly or otherwise, with which we will interact. Admittedly, there isn’t much social interaction with the mail and other delivery people, who turn up at our doors. The conversation is naturally very limited. But with these machines, we won’t even have that. Just a car turning up, following by the customer trudging out to punch in a code to open the doors.

Silent, efficient, and coldly impersonal.

And this is going to make the atomization and despair of contemporary western, and particularly American society, much worse. I’ve also come across a series of videos Chris Hedges has also made, in which he talks about the new American Fascism, and specifically the Religious Right. I think Hedges is probably an atheist, from some of the things he has said about the religious right promoting magical thinking. But he has a divinity degree, his father was a politically radical Presbyterian clergyman, his mother was also a divinity student, and so Hedges doesn’t hate religion or regard the antics of the religious right and the frauds and bigots leading it as normal. Indeed, he is at pains to show that, for all that they scream that they represent traditional values, they don’t. He states in one video that they’re as far from traditional Christian religious doctrine and practice as the religious liberals they despise.

One of the points he makes in these videos is that these bigots have been assisted in their rise to power by the social atomization of modern American society. In places like LA there are no pavements, so people can’t walk down the street. You have to drive. And so people drive straight to work, and then straight home. They don’t really meet or interact with anyone else. And the religious right has exploited this atomization, this alienation, by offering people a community in the ideologically enclosed space of their megachurches. And the people they target are those who have suffered from the attacks of neoliberalism – people in the rustbelt, who have seen their jobs decline and their communities fall into poverty along with them.

Other observers of the American Right have said the same. One of the essays in the book attacking the Neo-Cons, Confronting the New Conservativism, states that these b*stards are able to get away with promoting bigotry and racism, because of the decline in genuine, working class communities. The jobs are going, and White flight has meant that Whites have moved out of racially mixed areas in the centres of town to the suburbs. Community centres have also closed, and the attack on trade unions has also destroyed this pillar of working class community. The result is that the individual is left isolated from both people of other ethnic groups, and similar people to him- or herself. He or she goes to work and comes home. This isolation leaves them vulnerable to the vile propaganda spewed at them by bigots like Jerry Falwell and the rest of the rightwing televangelists that were thrown up by the 1980s.

This atomization and alienation is one of the fundamental characteristics of totalitarian societies of the Left and Right. In the Soviet Union, society was arranged so that people were deliberately isolated from each other. The only way of keeping in contact and forming communities and relationships, at least officially, was through the party organisations. Ditto with the Third Reich. Hitler boasted that they would never leave the individual alone, not even in a poker club.

And the driverless cars also remind me of another dystopian vision of the future, that of Ray Bradbury’s The Pedestrian. This is a tale by one of the great masters of SF, in which a man walking late at night is stopped and picked up by a police car. The car’s not crewed. It’s entirely automatic. Bradbury describes the computer punchcards being processed as the machine thinks. The machine asks the man why he’s on the streets so late at night. He replies simply that he just wanted to take a walk.

Already there are places in some American cities, where you can’t walk. Mike found this out a few years ago when he visited friends in California. You had to drive everywhere, even down to the local stores. Which means that the cold future of The Pedestrian really ain’t that far away.


Hyper Evolution – The Rise of the Robots Part 2

August 5, 2017

Wednesday evening I sat down to watch the second part of the BBC 4 documentary, Hyperevolution: the Rise of the Robots, in which the evolutionary biologist Ben Garrod and the electronics engineer Prof. Danielle George trace the development of robots from the beginning of the 20th century to today. I blogged about the first part of the show on Tuesday in a post about another forthcoming programme on the negative consequences of IT and automation, Secrets of Silicon Valley. The tone of Hyperevolution is optimistic and enthusiastic, with one or two qualms from Garrod, who fears that robots may pose a threat to humanity. The programme states that robots are an evolving species, and that we are well on the way to developing true Artificial Intelligence.

Last week, Garrod went off to meet a Japanese robotics engineer, whose creation had been sent up to keep a Japanese astronaut company of the International Space Station. Rocket launches are notoriously expensive, and space is a very, very expensive premium. So it was no surprise that the robot was only about four inches tall. It’s been designed as a device to keep people company, which the programme explained was a growing problem in Japan. Japan has a falling birthrate and thus an aging population. The robot is programmed to ask and respond to questions, and to look at the person, who’s speaking to it. It doesn’t really understand what is being said, but simply gives an answer according to its programming. Nevertheless, it gives the impression of being able to follow and respond intelligently to conversation. It also has the very ‘cute’ look that characterizes much Japanese technology, and which I think comes from the conventions of Manga art. Garrod noted how it was like baby animals in having a large head and eyes, which made the parents love them.

It’s extremely clever, but it struck me as being a development of the Tamagotchi, the robotic ‘pet’ which was all over the place a few years ago. As for companionship, I could help thinking of a line from Andrei Tarkovsky’s epic Solaris, based on the novel by the Polish SF writer, Stanislaw Lem. The film follow the cosmonaut, Kris, on his mission to a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. The planet’s vast ocean is alive, and has attempted to establish contact with the station’s crew by dredging their memories, and sending them replicas of people they know. The planet does this to Kris, creating a replica of a former girlfriend. At one point, pondering the human condition in a vast, incomprehensible cosmos, Kris states ‘There are only four billion of us…a mere handful. We don’t need spaceships, aliens…What man needs is man.’ Or words to that effect. I forget the exact quote. I dare say robots will have their uses caring for and providing mental stimulation for the elderly, but this can’t replace real, human contact.

George went to America to NASA, where the space agency is building Valkyrie to help with the future exploration of Mars in 2030. Valkyrie is certainly not small and cute. She’s six foot, and built very much like the police machines in Andrew Blomkamp’s Chappie. George stated that they were trying to teach the robot how to walk through a door using trial and error. But each time the machine stumbled. The computer scientists then went through the robot’s programming trying to find and correct the error. After they thought they had solved it, they tried again. And again the machine stumbled.

George, however, remained optimistic. She told ‘those of you, who think this experiment is a failure’, that this was precisely what the learning process entailed, as the machine was meant to learn from its mistakes, just like her own toddler now learning to walk. She’s right, and I don’t doubt that the robot will eventually learn to walk upright, like the humanoid robots devised by their competitors over at DARPA. However, there’s no guarantee that this will be the case. People do learn from their mistakes, but if mistakes keep being made and can’t be correctly, then it’s fair to say that a person has failed to learn from them. And if a robot fails to learn from its mistakes, then it would also be fair to say that the experiment has failed.

Holy Joe Smith! I was also a reminded of another piece of classic SF in this segment. Not film, but 2000 AD’s ‘Robohunter’ strip. In its debut story, the aged robohunter, Sam Slade – ‘that’s S-L-A-Y-E-D to you’ – his robometer, Kewtie and pilot, Kidd, are sent to Verdus to investigate what has happened to the human colonists. Verdus is so far away, that robots have been despatched to prepare it for human colonization, and a special hyperdrive has to be used to get Slade there. This rejuvenates him from an old man in his seventies to an energetic guy in his thirties. Kidd, his foul mouthed, obnoxious pilot, who is in his 30s, is transformed into a foul-mouthed, obnoxious, gun-toting baby.

The robot pioneers have indeed prepared Verdus for human habitation. They’ve built vast, sophisticated cities, with shops and apartments just waiting to be occupied, along with a plethora of entertainment channels, all of whose hosts and performers are robotic. However, their evolution has outpaced that of humanity, so that they are now superior, both physically and mentally. They continue to expect humans to be the superiors, and so when humans have come to Verdus, they’ve imprisoned, killed and experimented on them as ‘Sims’ – simulated humans, not realizing that these are the very beings they were created to serve. In which case, Martian colonists should beware. And carry a good blaster, just in case.

Garrod and George then went to another lab, where the robot unnerved Garrod by looking at him, and following him around with its eye. George really couldn’t understand why this should upset him. Talking about it afterwards, Garrod said that he was worried about the threat robots pose to humanity. George replied by stating her belief that they also promise to bring immense benefits, and that this was worth any possible danger. And that was the end of that conversation before they went on to the next adventure.

George’s reply isn’t entirely convincing. This is what opponents of nuclear power were told back in the ’50s and ’60s, however. Through nuclear energy we were going to have ships and planes that could span the globe in a couple of minutes, and electricity was going to be so plentiful and cheap that it would barely be metered. This failed, because the scientists and politicians advocating nuclear energy hadn’t really worked out what would need to be done to isolate and protect against the toxic waste products. Hence nearly six decades later, nuclear power and the real health and environmental problems it poses are still very much controversial issues. And there’s also that quote from Bertrand Russell. Russell was a very staunch member of CND. When he was asked why he opposed nuclear weapons, he stated that it was because they threatened to destroy humanity. ‘And some of us think that would be a very great pity’.

Back in America, George went to a bar to meet Alpha, a robot created by a British inventor/showman in 1932. Alpha was claimed to be an autonomous robot, answering questions by choosing appropriate answers from recordings on wax cylinders. George noted that this was extremely advanced for the time, if true. Finding the machine resting in a display case, filled with other bizarre items like bongo drums, she took an access plate off the machine to examine its innards. She was disappointed. Although there were wires to work the machine’s limbs, there were no wax cylinders or any other similar devices. She concluded that the robot was probably worked by a human operator hiding behind a curtain.

Then it was off to Japan again, to see another robot, which, like Valkyrie, was learning for itself. This was to be a robot shop assistant. In order to teach it to be shop assistant, its creators had built an entire replica camera shop, and employed real shop workers to play out their roles, surrounded by various cameras recording the proceedings. So Garrod also entered the scenario, where he pretended to be interested in buying a camera, asking questions about shutter speeds and such like. The robot duly answered his questions, and moved about the shop showing him various cameras at different prices. Like the robotic companion, the machine didn’t really know or understand what it was saying or doing. It was just following the motions it had learned from its human counterparts.

I was left wondering how realistic the role-playing had actually been. The way it was presented on camera, everything was very polite and straightforward, with the customer politely asking the price, thanking the assistant and moving on to ask to see the next of their wares. I wondered if they had ever played at being a difficult customer in front of it. Someone who came in and, when asked what they were looking for, sucked their teeth and said, ‘I dunno really,’ or who got angry at the prices being asked, or otherwise got irate at not being able to find something suitable.

Through the programme, Japanese society is held up as being admirably progressive and accepting of robots. Earlier in that edition, Garrod finished a piece on one Japanese robot by asking why it was that a car manufacturer was turning to robotics. The answer’s simple. The market for Japanese cars and motorcycles is more or less glutted, and they’re facing competition from other countries, like Indonesia and Tokyo. So the manufacturers are turning to electronics.

The positive attitude the Japanese have to computers and robots is also questionable. The Japanese are very interested in developing these machines, but actually don’t like using them themselves. The number of robots in Japan can easily be exaggerated, as they include any machine tool as a robot. And while many British shops and businesses will use a computer, the Japanese prefer to do things the old way by hand. For example, if you go to a post office in Japan, the assistant, rather than look something up on computer, will pull out a ledger. Way back in the 1990s someone worked out that if the Japanese were to mechanise their industry to the same extent as the West, they’d throw half their population out of work.

As for using robots, there’s a racist and sexist dimension to this. The Japanese birthrate it falling, and so there is real fear of a labour shortage. Robots are being developed to fill it. But Japanese society is also extremely nationalistic and xenophobic. Only people, whose parents are both Japanese, are properly Japanese citizens with full civil rights. There are third-generation Koreans, constituting an underclass, who, despite having lived there for three generations, are still a discriminated against underclass. The Japanese are developing robots, so they don’t have to import foreign workers, and so face the problems and strains of a multicultural society.

Japanese society also has some very conservative attitudes towards women. So much so, in fact, that the chapter on the subject in a book I read two decades ago on Japan, written by a Times journalist, was entitled ‘A Woman’s Place Is In the Wrong’. Married women are expected to stay at home to raise the kids, and the removal of a large number of women from the workplace was one cause of the low unemployment rate in Japan. There’s clearly a conflict between opening up the workplace to allow more married women to have a career, and employing more robots.

Garrod also went off to Bristol University, where he met the ‘turtles’ created by the neuroscientist, Grey Walter. Walter was interested in using robots to explore how the brain functioned. The turtles were simple robots, consisting of a light-detecting diode. The machine was constructed to follow and move towards light sources. As Garrod himself pointed out, this was like the very primitive organisms he’d studied, which also only had a light-sensitive spot.

However, the view that the human brain is really a form of computer have also been discredited by recent research. Hubert L. Dreyfus in his book, What Computers Still Can’t Do: A Critique of Artificial Intelligence, describes how, after the failure of Good Old Fashioned A.I. (GOFAI), computer engineers then hoped to create it through exploring the connections between different computing elements, modelled on the way individual brain cells are connected to each by a complex web of neurons. Way back in 1966, Walter Rosenblith of MIT, one of the pioneers in the use of computers in neuropsychology, wrote

We no longer hold the earlier widespread belief that the so-called all-or-none law from nerve impulses makes it legitimate to think of relays as adequate models for neurons. In addition, we have become increasingly impressed with the interactions that take place among neurons: in some instances a sequence of nerve impulses may reflect the activities of literally thousands of neurons in a finely graded manner. In a system whose numerous elements interact so strongly with each other, the functioning of the system is not necessarily best understood by proceeding on a neuron-by-neuron basis as if each had an independent personality…Detailed comparisons of the organization of computer systems and brains would prove equally frustrating and inconclusive. (Dreyfus, What Computers Still Can’t Do, p. 162).

Put simply, brain’s don’t work like computers. This was written fifty years ago, but it’s fair to ask if the problem still exists today, despite some of the highly optimistic statements to the contrary.

Almost inevitably, driverless cars made their appearance. The Germans have been developing them, and Garrod went for a spin in one, surrounded by two or three engineers. He laughed with delight when the car told him he could take his hands off the wheel and let the vehicle continue on its own. However, the car only works in the comparatively simply environment of the autobahn. When it came off the junction, back into the normal road system, the machine told him to start driving himself. So, not quite the victory for A.I. it at first appears.

Garrod did raise the question of the legal issues. Who would be responsible if the car crashed while working automatically – the car, or the driver? The engineers told him it would be the car. Garrod nevertheless concluded that segment by noting that there were still knotty legal issues around it. But I don’t know anyone who wants one, or necessarily would trust one to operate on its own. A recent Counterpunch article I blogged about stated that driverless cars are largely being pushed by a car industry, trying to expand a market that is already saturated, and the insurance companies. The latter see it as a golden opportunity to charge people, who don’t want one, higher premiums on the grounds that driverless cars are safer.

Garrod also went to meet researchers in A.I. at Plymouth University, who were also developing a robot which as part of their research into the future creation of genuine consciousness in machines. Talking to one of the scientists afterwards, Garrod heard that there could indeed be a disruptive aspect to this research. Human society was based on conscious decision making. But if the creation of consciousness was comparatively easy, so that it could be done in an afternoon, it could have a ‘disruptive’ effect. It may indeed be the case that machines will one day arise which will be conscious, sentient entities, but this does not mean that the development of consciousness is easy. You think of the vast ages of geologic time it took evolution to go from simple, single-celled organisms to complex creatures like worms, fish, insects and so on, right up to the emergence of Homo Sapiens Sapiens within the last 200,000 years.

Nevertheless, the programme ended with Garrod and George talking the matter over on the banks of the Thames in London. George concluded that the rise of robots would bring immense benefits and the development of A.I. was ‘inevitable’.

This is very optimistic, to the point where I think you could be justified by calling it hype. I’ve said in a previous article how Dreyfus’ book describes how robotics scientists and engineers have made endless predictions since Norbert Wiener and Alan Turing, predicting the rise of Artificial Intelligence, and each time they’ve been wrong. He’s also described the sheer rage with which many of those same researchers respond to criticism and doubt. In one passage he discusses a secret meeting of scientists at MIT to discuss A.I., in which a previous edition of his book came up. The scientists present howled at it with derision and abuse. He comments that why scientists should persist in responding so hostilely to criticism, and to persist in their optimistic belief that they will eventually solve the problem of A.I., is a question for psychology and the sociology of knowledge.

But there are also very strong issues about human rights, which would have to be confronted if genuine A.I. was ever created. Back in the 1970s or early ’80s, the British SF magazine, New Voyager, reviewed Roderick Random. Subtitled, ‘The Education of a Young Machine’, this is all about the creation of a robot child. The reviewer stated that the development of truly sentient machines would constitute the return of slavery. A similar point was made in Star Trek: The Next Generation, in an episode where another ship’s captain wished to take Data apart, so that he could be properly investigated and more like him built. Data refused, and so the captain sued to gain custody of him, arguing that he wasn’t really sentient, and so should be legally considered property. And in William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the book that launched the Cyberpunk SF genre, the hero, Case, finds out that the vast computer for which he’s working, Wintermute, has Swiss citizenship, but its programming are the property of the company that built it. This, he considers, is like humans having their thoughts and memories made the property of a corporation.

Back to 2000 AD, the Robusters strip portrayed exactly what such slavery would mean for genuinely intelligent machines. Hammerstein, an old war droid, and his crude sidekick, the sewer droid Rojaws and their fellows live with the constant threat of outliving their usefulness, and taking a trip down to be torn apart by the thick and sadistic Mek-Quake. Such a situation should, if it ever became a reality, be utterly intolerable to anyone who believes in the dignity of sentient beings.

I think we’re a long way off that point just yet. And despite Prof. George’s statements to the contrary, I’m not sure we will ever get there. Hyperevolution is a fascinating programme, but like many of the depictions of cutting edge research, it’s probably wise to take some of its optimistic pronouncements with a pinch of salt.

Mek Quake’s for Real Brother

December 6, 2015

This is awesome! I’ve blogged about robots and how they compare to fictional machines from the pages of 2000 AD, such as ‘Ro-Busters’, ‘ABC Warriors’ and ‘Robohunter’. This looks like something very much from creators of Ro-Busters/ ABC Warriors, but it was in fact absolutely rule. It’s the largest robot every built.

Mek Quake's Brother

I found it on 1000 Natural Shocks, which reblogged it in turn from Tanks-a-Lot. The legend with the photo states that, the robot was called the Beetle. It says

The Beetle was a robot designed for the Air Force Special Weapons Centre, initially to service and maintain a planned fleet of atomic-powered Air Force bombers, according to declassified Air Force reports, work began on the Beetle in 1959, and it was completed in 1961. It was 19 feet long, 12 feet wide, 11 feet high and weighed a ground-shaking 77 tons. The pilot was shielded by an inch of steel armour on the outside of the unit, half-an-inch inside and a minimum of 12 inches of lead plating around the cabin, which would keep him shielded from all but the most intense blasts of radiation. On top of all that, the cockpit glass was 23 inches thick, and was made up of seven individual panes of leaded glass. it was built on a M42 duster chassis, powered by a 500hp engine and had a top speed of 8 miles per hour, speed had been traded off for power, the robot’s bulk meaning it had 85,000 pounds of pull in its arms. Yet despite this raw power, it could also perform incredibly delicate operations. At a public demonstration in 1962, for example, the Beetle was able to roll up to a carton of eggs (pictured up top), pick a single egg up and hold it in its pincers without breaking it. when the atomic aircraft project was cancelled in 1961, it was earmarked by the US military for a role in cleaning up the debris caused by a nuclear explosion but that would have required a more active deployment, something its size, weight and most crucially unwieldiness (as in, taking several minutes for a pilot to get in and out) simply could not stand up to. It’s unknown what ultimately became of the Beetle.

It had a human operator in a cab, but otherwise it looks very much like the kind of giant, construction/ demolition robots, of which MekQuake was one.


The Terrameks, an army of demolition robots, prepare to destroy the fictional British town of Northpool. From the ‘Robusters’ back-up strip in Sam Slade, Robohunter, No. 3., December 1986. Script Pat Mills, Art Dave Gibbons.

It really should have had a mind of its own, although of extremely low intelligence, and shouted ‘Big Jobs!’ when it flattened something.

Warning: 1000 Natural Shocks is over-18s only.

Motherboard Report on the Japanese Robot Hotel

November 25, 2015

This is another interesting video I found over on Youtube. It’s a piece by the science news programme, Motherboard, on the Henn-na – Japanese for ‘weird’ Hotel in Tokyo that’s staffed by robots. The presenter states that Japan has legions of industrial robots, and Japanese trends were believed to show what the future would be like. In the case of the hotel industry, a few decades ago this was believed to be the capsule hotels, where tired Sararimen hired what was basically a stacked space about the size of a coffin to sleep in. The presenter tries one of these out, and talks to a traditional Japanese hotelier about how he feels about the rise of hotels where everything is done by robots.

The human hotelier states that he believes that people actually want the human touch, and personal contact with other human beings. So to compete, he believes that ordinary hotels will have to concentrate on being more human, rather than like those run by the machines. The journalist then goes on to sample what a night in one of these robot hotels is like. He states that the Japanese are turning to robots in order to cut down on high labour costs.

Inside the hotel, he is greeted with the hotel reception, which consists of two robots on a desk. One is in the guise of a woman, the other is a dinosaur in a hat. To check in, he has to use a touch-screen, which he describes as like those used at checkouts. Any valuables you have is placed in a locker behind glass by a robot arm, which the journalists says could come from a state of the art factory. Your luggage is taken to your room by another robot, though this is a robot trolley, not any kind of humanoid machine. In the bedroom on the bedside drawers is another, rather diminutive robot, which responds to your voice, greets you, and asks if you want the lights on or off.

Back down stairs, there are no catering staff. All the meals come from vending machines. There is a small human staff of about three guys. When interviewed, they also talk about how these hotels are driven by the need to cut labour costs. The journalist also interviews the managers, who states that he believes these hotels will become more popular and appear around the world. He and his staff also believe that to compete, hotels staffed by humans will also have to offer a more uniquely human experience.

The presenter himself and some of the guests he interviews are, however, in the end less than enthusiastic about the experience. He states that while its exciting to begin with, it’s actually rather lonely. The group of young women he interviews actually state that it’s really rather boring.

Here’s the video:

Now the presenter makes the point that as machines take more of our jobs, businesses like these raise the question of what can be uniquely done by humans. I’d argue that hotel catering and accommodation may not be an industry that can only be done by humans, but at the moment its an industry that can only be done well by humans.

If you look at the type of robots that have been popular in SF, they’re fictional machines that have had real characters and personalities. Think of Robbie the Robot in Forbidden Planet, C-3PO and R2D2 in the Star Wars films and K-9 in Dr Who. The same with the sentient computers, like Zen, Orac and Slave in Blake’s 7, or the Hal 9000 computer in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. Or even Marvin the Paranoid Android in the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. These machines became favourite SF characters because they were precisely that: characters. They were essentially artificial people, with human-like intelligence, personality traits and even flaws. Robbie the Robot had all the polite aloofness of a human butler. C-3PO was fussy and rather camp, but a foil for R2D2, who was cheeky and slightly wilful, in the manner of a child determined to have its own way. Orac in Blake’s 7 was arrogant and pedantic, like a rather tetchy university professor. Slave was grovelling and subservient. K-9 was a perky companion, eager to help his master, but also with his own mind and opinions. The Hal-9000 computer was proud of its model’s computing power, accuracy and reliability, stated it enjoyed human companion, even though it went on to kill the crew on the grounds that human unreliability made them a threat to the success of the mission. Finally, it felt fear, when Dave Bowman, the hero of that segment of the film, closed it down. Zen was the most impersonal of all the machines. Except for its dying moment in the last episode of the third series, ‘Terminal’, it did not refer to itself. It was basically a hemisphere in a corner of the Liberator’s flight deck, across which flowed patterns of lights. Yet these lights and the slight inflections in its voice gave the impression of a distinct personality, and again, real human-like intelligence. Peter Tuddenham, the voice actor for Orac and Zen, in an interview with Blake’s 7 magazine in the 1980s, stated that of the two, Zen was his favourite. Orac, he felt, had merely taken on the personality of its creator, Ensor, who was also tetchy, pedantic and professorial. Zen’s personality was a more natural growth of the machine’s basic nature. It could have become human-like, but had deliberately held back and remained as it was.

And back in the 1970s and ’80s, 2000 AD also gave their own very comic version of what form robot accommodation for humans would take in the Robohunter strip. This followed the adventures of Sam Slade, that’s ‘S-L-A-Y-E-D to you’, as he attempted to combat robot crime. In the first story, Slade found himself despatched to the distant planet, Verdus. This had been occupied by robots in preparation for human colonisation. The robots, however, had refused to recognise the colonists as humans on the grounds that humans would obviously be superior to them in the every way. When the human colonists turned up, the robots found that they were instead weaker, and less intelligent. They concluded that they must somehow be ‘sims’, simulated humans, sent to deceive them for some purpose they didn’t understand. As a result, humans were rounded up into concentration camps to be experimented on and culled. Slade managed to break out, find the original robot sent to colonise the planet, who duly recognised and testified that he was indeed human. This convinced some of the robots that the Sims were humans, while others remained unconvinced. A war broke out between the two sides, which was only stopped by Slade destroying every robot on Verdus. This restored peace, but left his employers furious.

All this makes the strip seem grimmer than it actually was. The strip, scripted by long-time 2000 AD writer John Wagner, and drawn by Ian Gibson, was funny and satirical with a distinct cartoonish quality. On Verdus, everything was done by robots. There was a robot parliament, occupied by deranged and moronic MPs, like the Stupid Parties, which existed solely to provide comic amusement to the planet’s true leader, Big Brain. There was a robot archbishop and chief rabbi, demanding rights for Sims as God’s creatures. The robot armies included stereotypical ‘Colonel Blimp’ generals, while members of the robot constabulary in Robopoly, a robot board game, where also corrupt and brutal, following several real police scandals of the time. There were also robot singers and TV stars, like Frankie Droid, and Valve Doonican, a pastiche of the Irish singer, Val Doonican, who had his own show on British television at the time.

In the last couple of decades, a number of computer entrepreneurs and SF writers have predicted that eventually, everything will have computers chips in and so be computer controlled. The Robohunter strip also depicted that possibility, but gave it its own, twisted slant. In the page below, Slade and his diminutive sidekick, Kidd, on the run from the robots break into an apartment. Once inside, they find that everything, from the kettle, to footwear and furniture, is a robot.

Robohunter Pic 1

What makes this interesting, and extremely funny, is that all these machines have their own personalities. They talk and argue. They discuss whether Slade and Kidd are really human, or just Sims, and then decide to put it to the vote whether they should turn them in or not.

This is absolutely unlike the real robot hotel. For all the talk about Artificial Intelligence, the machines there aren’t really sentient. They respond in a very limited way to a set of instructions. These may be verbal or keyed in. Unlike the fictional machines, there is no ‘I’, no sense of self lurking within the chips and circuit boards. And no real understanding of what they’re doing either. It’s just one set of circuits responding to a certain stimulus according to its programme or wiring. They’re moving mannequins, rather than the artificial people of SF.

So instead of the robotic maniacs of Verdus, what is instead presented is something far more like the antiseptic, alienated futures of Stanley Kubrick’s SF films. In 2001 everything is gleaming white, clean, and sterile. People speak, but don’t actually communicate or really say anything much at all. And that was deliberate. Clarke had told Kubrick that he had trouble writing dialogue for the movie. Kubrick told him not to worry. He liked it stilted, as he saw the people in this future as brittle and alienated. They had reached a high stage of technological sophistication but had little human warmth or empathy in their social interactions themselves. Critics have commented that the only real personality in the movie is that of Hal, the murderous computer.

The programme’s presented states that the increasing use of robots in Japan is driven by the need to cut labour costs. I dare say that’s part of it, but not quite what has been said elsewhere. Japan actually has a labour shortage, partly caused by a falling birth rate and strongly traditional attitudes against women in the workplace. As a result, there’s been campaigns not only to introduce robots into Japanese industry, but also to humanise them, to get the other, human members of the workforce to accept them as a fellow being, rather than just a machine.

And for all the country’s immense technological sophistication and ingenuity, it’s actually extremely reluctant to implement mechanisation itself as comprehensively as its competitors in the West have done. Way back in the 1990s I read a book on Japan written by a Times journalist. The author stated that while in the West were used to computer checkouts, if you went into a Japanese shop or the post office, the clerk there would be using old fashioned ledgers. The Japanese had worked out that if they fully automated their industry, it would put half their workers out of a job. And the actual numbers of robots in Japan may well be colossally exaggerated. Geoff Simons in his book Robots: The Question for Living Machines, states that most of the what the Japanese call robots are what in the west are viewed as machine tools. The impression I have is that the Japanese love robots, but want to introduce them as an addition to the human workers, not as a replacement.

The film shows the journalist enjoying the robot actors and dancers at a carnival or nightclub. Alongside some machines, are people dressed as robots, playing at them. This strikes me as what visitors to a robot hotel would really want from the experience – real humans alongside the machines, and the machines themselves to be more like personalities than just simple automatic mechanisms. The danger there is that if you did give robots personalities, you run the risk of creating miserable robots like the eternally depressed Marvin, the Paranoid Android. He was a ‘personality prototype’. ‘You can tell, can’t you?’ as he himself put it.

I’ve no doubt that the ruthless logic of capitalism means that there’ll be more of these hotels in the future. I think there’s already another like it in Los Angeles. But in the meantime I think human-run premises probably offer a better service. At least they have real cooks, rather than vending machines.