Mulling Robots and Their Names

by Paul Gilster on March 17, 2007

Lee Gutkind takes a look at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon in Almost Human: Making Robots Think (W.W. Norton, 2007), a book entertainingly reviewed in this weekend’s Los Angeles Times. Out of which this wonderful clip from reviewer M.G. Lord:

I wish Gutkind had spent more time on an area that I find fascinating: the anthropomorphizing and gendering of robots, which science-fiction author Robert A. Heinlein famously explored in his novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. What Heinlein created was a computer that, depending on circumstances, could switch between masculine and feminine identities. Robots are heaps of hardware, not biological entities, yet humans apparently feel more comfortable if they assign them a gender, regardless of the crudeness of the gender stereotype. The institute, for example, has robot receptionists with gendered personalities: Valerie, a “female” who complains about her dates with vacuum cleaners and cars, and Tank, a “male,” who has blundered so often that he has been placed “where he can do no harm,” — in other words, in a job traditionally for women.

Tank, however, gave me the first real evidence that computers might eventually think for themselves. The robot appears contemptuous of the antediluvian gender roles that engineers (and Gutkind) project upon them. “I saw a very pretty blonde student type Tank an intimate message: ‘I love you,’” Gutkind writes, “to which Tank replied, ‘You don’t even know me.’”

I could never get through The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. In fact, I had trouble with all the late Heinlein, pretty much everything after Stranger in a Strange Land. But the question about biological vs. machine identity is indeed fascinating, and it’s also instructive to learn that it crops up even with today’s limited robots. The little round vacuum cleaner robot called the Roomba from iRobot inspires owners to assign gender and names to their machines, a phenomenon the company acknowledges. As robots get smarter, we may find them less alien and more ‘human’ than we thought, if only because we can’t resist making them so.

{ 14 comments }

Thaddeus Slamp March 17, 2007 at 18:22

I’m almost positive that the moon is a harsh mistress came out before strangerin a strange land. It is not 1 of his later works, therefore. Sorry you didn’t like it. Its one of my favorite books in the world, and is appearantly well loved by many programmers, as well, as it is listed as a classic of the mood in the hackers dictionary.

Administrator March 17, 2007 at 19:08

A lot of people agreed with you, Thaddeus, including the crowd that voted The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress the Hugo Award. Stranger in a Strange Land was actually published five years earlier, in 1961. I never really enjoyed the later Heinlein works, but that’s just a limitation of mine — clearly The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress made quite an impact and continues to be well regarded by many to this day.

philw March 17, 2007 at 19:28

I loved Heinlein’s juveniles and his adult 50s novels. I found MIAHM a difficult read because of the dliberate writing style Heinlein used in that book. I’ll have to try it again. But as to Stranger and the later works, I despised his sex-obsessed old man era. Much touted Stranger has not aged well. All that 60s philosophy, supposedly revolutionary and daring at the time seems trite and self-indulgent in the rear mirror of time.

I hope that Robotics doesn’t become the Flying Cars of the 21st century.

Administrator March 17, 2007 at 19:42

Thaddeus has me thinking I should try The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress again myself, and I probably will. It’s been a long time. But I agree with Phil re Stranger In a Strange Land, especially about the book’s self-indulgence.

Thaddeus Slamp March 17, 2007 at 20:53

I GUESS I’m wrong about the pre strangerness of moon, but still 1 can certainly like moon/ think very much that heinlein went overboard later on. In fact, I think its near concensus that he did so.

Thaddeus Slamp March 17, 2007 at 20:58

Maby, but I think we today are now far enough from 61 that we have no idea how to evaluate it’s social commentary. I unfortunately shouldn’t comment much more. I am a Heinlein fan. I’ve read about 85 percent of all he’s written, and loved all but the worst of his later works (couldn’t finish fear no evil), in fact more so, than his harder early stuff. Remember, tho that there have historically felt, and still may today, that if you don’t know heinlein you don’t know sci-fi. I even loved # of the beast!

Thaddeus Slamp March 17, 2007 at 21:00

Do your self a favor then. Don’t even try Burgesses Clockwork Orange. He creates a whole new language, essentially.

Gregory Benford March 17, 2007 at 23:42

I asked RAH if the ending of MHM was a subtle implication that the machine had used us and discarded us once it was free… and he nodded.

Benny Watts March 18, 2007 at 9:27

If we succeed at building robots that think and behave like humans, all we’ve done is build humans with different parts. What exactly does that net us? There’s no reason to suspect they would be any more capable, any more reliable, any more trustworthy than a human or dumb computer operating machinery, and the only attraction to using them would be that we own them as property. It would be slavery by other means, avoiding moral quandaries by changing the canvas on which the conscious mind operates.

Yes, we could imagine programming robotic emotions to take joy in service, but apply that reasoning to genetic engineering and ask if it would be desirable to design flesh-and-blood human slaves that feel the same. The same question applies to giving nominal free will, but creating desires to result in a predetermined choice.

Moreover, once we realize that these are the implications of robotics, would people accustomed to it accept limitations or simply extend what they’re doing to biology? Would it not be easier to just treat all sentient creatures as tools rather than give up that power and rely on individual abilities? If so, then all interactions between intelligent beings are reduced to a struggle for power, of each to make the other into an instrument of their will, and ultimately only one could hold sovereign autonomy.

Those who believe in the future have always looked down on the word “hubris,” seeing it more as a lack of courage than a real objection, but using it now seems appropriate: To design sentience for an agenda is no less hubristic than destroying it for the same reason, because in either case you have objectified what is possibly the only end-in-itself, and made it subject to one of its own byproducts. Perhaps that is the nature of our evolution, but I choose to think another path exists.

If, for instance, we came to reject the idea of designing conscious beings as tools, then our focus would shift toward augmenting our own individual capabilities–i.e., designing better dumb technologies that our own intelligence directs, and also improving that intelligence. That could include augmenting our bodies and/or brains, or even replacing them entirely, but at no point would consciousness itself be objectified, nor would all human survival become dependent on a single will.

Once again, credit to Frank Herbert for seeding these ideas in his works. With all due respect to Heinlein, it’s no contest. :)

Eric James March 18, 2007 at 23:45

I didn’t like the later Heinlein works either. I felt he’d digressed into writing little more than a fanciful form of soft porn.

David May 28, 2007 at 16:35

I feel no added comfort or desire to asign gender to my robots. Roomba is a nonsexual device, and the robots I make I don’t try to design to be male or female. I like the synth speech produced by text to speech synthesizers. Let them be machines. Neither male, or female. It’s about time humans accept that not everything in the world confirms to their biology. Most life forms are asexual so just deal with it.

ljk May 28, 2007 at 20:48

Outside of certain microbes, what other organisms on Earth
are asexual? Most of the ones I know, especially the more
developed ones, use sex to pass on their genes.

And as for robots being asexual – they may be, but don’t
kid yourself that once we make them sophisticated enough
that they will be used by humans for that very purpose.

Adam May 29, 2007 at 6:24

Hi Larry

Lots of organisms are monosexual and reproduce via cloning – your garden is probably full of a number of examples, as it’s a fairly common mode of reproduction amongst plants. There’s quite a few lizard species which are all female and reproduce parthenogenically. And multitudes of worms and molluscs which are hermaphroditic, engaging in mutual fertilization with other members of their species.

And, oddly enough, there’s a not insignificant fraction of the human population who claim to be “asexual” – just not interested.

Administrator May 29, 2007 at 7:13

I’m with Larry on this — I think we have an innate need to both name and assign gender to things, whether it’s logical or not. OK by me not to name your Roomba, but I suspect most of them do have names, and I’d expect that tendency to increase as robots become more functional.

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