Science Fiction, Political Commentary, and the Future

Posted in Uncategorized by L. Nicol Cabe - May 27, 2010

I’ve mentioned it before, but I am a science nerd. Particularly when it comes to biology. I am also a scifi nerd, having been raised by Trekkies. So, when I heard about the first human-made bacterium, I admit that I squeed. A lot.

What this break-through reminds me of is Karel Čapek’s play Rossum’s Universal Robots — a play written in the late 1920′s in Eastern Europe, which coined the term “robot.” In Čapek’s play, robots are not machines, but artificially created people, made from a protoplasm generated by machine and then assembled. So, they are just like humans, but made from a different substance, and obviously much cheaper to create than real humans. Therefore, of course, these robots are used as slaves, and in the world of the play they eventually come to do all the work on the planet, while all “real” humans live in bourgeois luxury. One of the main characters starts out as a spy for an opposition group that claims rights for these artificial people, but she is eventually swayed into the luxurious life and, like all other humans, killed by the robot uprising for her crimes against this new sentient species.

R.U.R. is not, however, a warning against the advancements of science — Čapek intended his play to be a social commentary on the exploitative culture he lived in. The modern parallel for Americans is pretty obvious: outsourcing and immigrant labor. So the play is still very relevant as a social commentary, and doesn’t work so much as a warning against the evils of science. But, then again, neither does Frankenstein. The Island of Dr. Moreau might fit with a warning against genetic alteration, but there’s really no current reason why humans need to mix our genes with those of animals. While a lot of works has been done decoding the human genome, as well as the genomes of other creatures, and while bio-engineered foods are on the market, we’re not quite up to that level of science yet, and thus far have no need for it to be readily available to consumers.

So I’m not an alarmist about this artificial bacterium, I just think it’s interesting in comparison with the protoplasm in R.U.R.. There’s enough ethical objections out there about this particular project that I think all concerns have been raised, including making biological weapons (this process isn’t good for biological weapons, by the way, because it is expensive and time consuming. Releasing small pox or anthrax on the world is much, much more effective). Exploitation continues of human laborers, so there’s no real reason for us to go to the expense of creating a whole new humanoid labor force to replace us, and I think with all the anti-robot scifi out there, most humans would be so creeped out by this work force that it wouldn’t take. We’re more likely to keep robotic pets, and maintain machine-based assembly lines, than have artificial humanoid servants. If roombas were shaped like Rosie from “The Jetsons,” rather than their current efficient circular shape, I honestly don’t think they would have caught on, at least in an American market. The Japanese overall don’t seem to have the same type of fear of robots that Americans do.

Anyway, science is fun. The ethical concerns in science fiction are helping us keep perspective on new discoveries like this artificial bacterium, and helping us keep in mind what these experiments are really useful for — making the world better, making our lives better, not imitating or replacing us. The likelihood that we will create even mildly intelligent life to serve us, that is not just following a strict set of computer-based commands, is really slim. Intelligent robotic life might happen accidentally, but that assumes robots reaching a certain level of intellectual complexity (perhaps with the aid of quantum computers). It also assumed two things: 1) the cost of research and production of robots falls well below the cost of cheap human labor, and 2) that all humans on the planet tear down tribal ties of any kind and create an empathic civilization, so that while cheap labor is still necessary, no human deserves to be treated as cattle or machine for the sake of cheap consumer goods. Clearly, the world economy and most cultures do not view people this way — or they at least have a specific way of defining “people” vs. “worthless resource-sucker.” I actually think this is the greatest hurdle we have to overcome. Once we get there, it makes complete sense to start researching new methods of building consumer products. On the other hand, there’s definitely been an internet-fueled backlash against mass consumerism with sites like Etsy and YouTube making it easier for you to learn how to create your own cloth, fix a bike, garden, support local farmers, etc. So one also has to assume that in the future, people will want cheap mass-produced consumer goods, rather than making their own … anything, really. If attitudes change that drastically, the entire basis of our current economy will change, so maybe the need for robotic labor will go away because of that.

So yes, exploitation is bad, we should avoid it. Science fiction, and now science, are, I hope, leading us toward a more ideal future.

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