Lisa Nocks

Practical Matters in Robotics and Science Fiction

During the past decade I have argued for a serious discussion of the place of science fiction in the history of science and technology. Consequently, I have rejected literary interpretations of humanoid robots as metaphors on the basis of historical evidence that the concept of independent, intelligent, resilient machines, and especially because billions of dollars have been spent worldwide on various aspects of humanoid robotics for healthcare, geriatric support, entertainment, exploration, and the military. Rather, I have argued, stories about humanoid robots--like stories of space exploration and high tech communication devices and future medicine--act as what is known in physics as thought experiments, used to approach a hypothesis or problem where physical experimentation is impossible, or where the space needed to perform such experiments is unavailable.

This position is only possible when we accept certain assumptions:

First, that imagination is an evolutionary adaptation, insofar as thinking about the future supports the desire for continued survival of the species. (The question of what constitutes an evolutionary adaptation by Pinker and others is part of the ongoing discourse of cognitive studies and evolutionary psychology.)
Second, there is a division of labor in human society as in that of other organisms--therefore, while scientists, mathematicians and engineers produce machines, science fiction writers provides for us a place to consider the societal impact of potential and actual technological activity.
Third, I assume that there is some migration of the ideas and concerns depicted in science fiction to the techno-scientific community. A number of technologists have acknowledged the influence of science fiction on their career paths. When historians do consider the value of science fiction as a historical artifact, they focus on the depiction of ethical problems inherent in manufacturing robots that develop a sense of self-interest, for instance, in P.K.Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or "The Measure of a Man" episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

In this paper, I would like to address the ways that such practical issues as robotic perception, power, mobility, and socialization now encountered by robotics researchers –and in particular humanoid robotics developers--were articulated by mid-twentieth century science fiction writers.