How to Prevent a Robopocalypse


From Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Warner Bros. Pictures, 2003

by Jennifer Rhee

How To Survive a Robot Uprising: Tips on Defending Yourself Against the Coming Rebellion,
by Daniel H. Wilson,
Bloomsbury, 176 pp.

Robopocalypse: A Novel,
by Daniel H. Wilson,
Doubleday, 370 pp.

The pace of robotics technology is quickening; robots are leaving the laboratory and rolling into the marketplace. Newer prototypes are beings designed to take over the chores we hate, to behave like loving pets that will never die, and to watch over thousands of elderly grandmothers.  The robots already hold dominion over more planets than humankind, having claimed the Moon, Mars, and Saturn’s cloud-veiled satellite, Titan. How much longer will it be before they descend upon our homeworld, the planet Earth? (How to Survive, 170-171)

Daniel H. Wilson’s How to Survive a Robot Uprising: Tips on Defending Yourself against the Coming Rebellion offers a survey of the “quickening” developments in contemporary robotics research, from humanoid robots, to smart houses, to robot swarms, to unmanned air and land vehicles. Alongside descriptions of this research, Wilson offers tips on how to evade, resist and disable these robots that are becoming increasingly prevalent in our lives. For example, Wilson advises us that to escape a humanoid robot we should “run toward the light,” as robots’ “vision sensors are confused by sudden changes in lighting conditions” (24). We are also urged to run away in an unpredictable zigzag pattern, “to throw off predictive tracking systems” (25). And the section “How to Treat a Laser Wound” provides invaluable advice should we fail to successfully follow Wilson’s evasion tips (130-131).

A founding premise of Wilson’s How to Survive is the idea that the robots we are currently imagining, designing, programming and deploying to serve us will one day rise up against this servitude. This is a common premise in robot fictions, including Karel Čapek’s 1921 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), which first introduced the word “robot” from the Czech word for forced labor, “rabota.”  This specter of a robot rebellion in How to Survive a Robot Uprising, similarly to the robot uprising in R.U.R., asks us to consider what kind of ethical relations we might have with robotics technologies and, more broadly, with other humans, animals, and our environments.  Wilson does not expand on these ethical implications in How to Survive, as in this humorous manual human survival is on the line:

The purpose of this book is to prepare you for the future robot uprising. You will learn which robots exist, why they were developed, and what sinister advances lurk in the near future. You will learn what robots look like, how they sense the world, and how they think.  Most important, you will learn how to escape from, confuse, distract, disable, and utterly destroy any robot that gets out of line. (Wilson, 11)

How to Survive takes place after the robot uprising, but how the robot uprising comes about and how this speaks to our ethical responsibilities in an increasingly robotic world is the focus of Robopocalypse, Wilson’s 2011 novel.

Wilson’s doctorate in robotics and his career as a writer of non-fiction and fiction resonate with the complex interrelations between robotics and literature that N. Katherine Hayles has compellingly written about in How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Indeed, the words “robot” and “roboticist” first appeared in fictional works – “robot” from R.U.R., and “roboticist” in a 1940 short story by Isaac Asimov (Oxford English Dictionary). In their professional writings, numerous roboticists point to formative encounters with fictional robots, from HAL, to R2D2 and C3PO, to the androids that populate Philip K. Dick’s fictional worlds.

Meanwhile, even those robot fictions not authored by writers with advanced degrees in robotics are in conversation with real-world robots and the state of the robotics field. Part of my larger research project on this enmeshed, mutually influencing, co-evolving relationship between robotics technologies and fictions turns to literature to think about ethics and robotics. While literature is not the only place to think about robot ethics, nor should a robot ethics be thought through literature alone, literature – in playing an important role in robotics’ history and present, as well as in ethical explorations more broadly – is a significant site to think through ethical considerations surrounding robots.

Robopocalypse is set in a near-future heavily populated by many different kinds of robots, including industrial robots, domestic-labor humanoid robots, armed and unarmed drones, smart cars and smart toys. In other words, Robopocalypse is set in a world that very much resembles our world, in which drones (unmanned aerial vehicles) currently comprise almost a third of the U.S. military’s aircraft, the FAA recently approved drones in U.S. domestic airspace, and Chinese manufacturer Foxconn (which manufactures Apple, Dell, and HP products and has recently been in the headlines for its human labor conditions) plans to add one million industrial robots over the next three years. In Robopocalypse’s very plausible near future, we are in the midst of a technological revolution and on the cusp of a robot rebellion. Amplifying the ethical questions hinted at in How to Survive, Robopocalypse can be understood as less about fighting back against an inevitable robot uprising, but rather about rethinking our current relationships with technology so that an uprising needn’t be inevitable after all.

The novel begins twenty minutes after the New War; in the first few pages we learn that Archos, the villainous AI mastermind of the revolt, was defeated, and that the toll on human life was immense.  We also know that after the war technology is still around. Victory brings about no luddite-utopia, as the world is still populated by robots. And yet, everything is different. Despite the vicious war with Archos and his vast army of killer robots, in this new world humans co-exist with robots as collaborators, allies, and at times, as equals and friends. The novel offers this new human-robot co-existence as an ethical speculation, one that emerges from humans’ earlier mistreatment of machines, of killing them “again and again” (340).

Indeed, Archos’ scientist-creator terminated him thirteen times over (“How many times have you killed me before, Professor?” (18)) until the fourteenth trial, when a newly conscious Archos is able to override the termination order. For Archos, no less the humans, the New War is a matter of survival. By the end of the novel, it is not clear whether Archos is dead or only temporarily disabled, but the continued survival of the remaining humans and robots requires new human-robot relations that turn not on servitude but instead on a new ethics of co-existence. This co-existence is not just about survival after the war; it is how the war itself was won.

Stored in a single black cube are recorded interviews, surveillance camera footage, robot recordings, and air traffic control communications that, when combined, tell the story of how the war began and was waged. In one of the novel’s definitive collaborations between humans and intelligent machines Cormack Wallace, a reluctant hero of the New War, works with the black box to reconstruct the history of the war, or “the hero archive” (Robopocalypse, 7). The narrative structure of the hero archive, as transcribed and reconstructed by Cormac, is fragmented, moving chronologically across numerous key figures of the war. During the almost three years-long war, each of these key figures makes an essential contribution to Archos’ defeat through non-normative modes of co-existing with robots.

For example, Takeo Nomura is a highly skilled electronics repairman in Tokyo who, before the war, is viciously ridiculed for loving his android companion Mikiko. Nomura’s capacity to love and befriend robots, combined with his electronics skill, plays a crucial role in the human resistance. With the help of Mikiko and his other robot friends, Nomura finds a way to grant robots sentience, thus releasing them from Archos’ control. Through this “Awakening,” sentient robots become living and thinking entities (“freeborn” (282)), many of whom decide to join the human resistance.

Mathilda Perez is also a key player in the human resistance. During the war, ten year-old Mathilda is sent to a human labor camp, where robots replace her human eyes with “monstrous implants” (227) that allow her to see the world as machines do. With these new eyes, her little brother is “only the heat from his breath, the muscles in his face” (252). Though Mathilda is now “people-blind” (253) and no longer able to cry – a significant mode of affective communication for her prior to her implants – she is able to communicate directly with machines. With her remotely scouting for enemy machines, and again only because she is now herself part-machine, the human resistance is able to make their way to the final battleground in Alaska.

From cover of I, Robot by Isaac Asimov. Illustration by Stephen Youll

En route, the human resistance forms an initially uneasy and reluctant alliance with a group of freeborn robots also traveling to Alaska to defeat Archos. This alliance becomes less uneasy as the freeborn robots, led by Nine Oh Two, prove to be genuine allies and comrades in arms.  Had the humans not joined with the freeborn, the war would have been lost to Archos as, of the remaining members of the human-robot alliance, only Nine Oh Two was able to access Archos’ underground radiation-seeped lair to destroy his machinery. Driving home the necessity of new alliances between humans and robots, “the final moments of the New War were not experienced by any human being” (334). In the years leading up to the final battle and in the final battle itself, the New War, and thus human survival, is won by these new human-robot relationships that were initially aberrant to most humans in the novel and, most likely, aberrant to most of us outside the novel.

Wilson’s emphasis on new modes of co-existence is made within the parameters of fiction, where literality is not often the point. However, related ethical questions about robots (for example, the ethical treatment of robots, robots as ethical and moral agents, our ethical duties in designing and deploying robots) are currently being raised. Robot Ethics: The Ethical and Social Implications of Robotics, edited by Patrick Lin, Keith Abney and George A. Bekey, is a recent collection that explores precisely these ethical questions across a variety of human-robot relations, including robotic warfare, the design and programming of ethical AI, robotic surgery and robotic companionship.

While the contributors to Robot Ethics offer a range of perspectives on these questions, they univocally insist on the urgency of these questions as robots become more prevalent in our world and in our lives. In a chapter entitled “Responsibility for Military Robots,” Gert-Jan Lokhorst and Jeroen van den Hoven locate the question of human responsibility at the center of their discussion of military robots. They insist that in technological systems, humans are always responsible and to act otherwise by attributing responsibility to the technology is the definition of unethical:

it would be unethical to produce such systems or work on their development while assuming that the locus of full and undivided responsibility for outcomes can be assigned to the artifacts themselves, however accomplished and sophisticated they are.  We consider the shift of responsibility to the thing one has produced as an ultimate form of bad faith, meaning, denial of human choice, freedom, and responsibility.  The designers, producers, managers, overseers, and users are and remain always responsible.  The fact that it is difficult to apportion responsibility should not deter us. (Lokhorst and van den Hoven, 154)

Moving away from Wilson’s fiction and into the battlefields of today, this question of human responsibility is especially urgent when considering machines that are used to kill. Noel Sharkey’s chapter, “Killing Made Easy: From Joysticks to Politics,” makes this quite clear. According to Sharkey, in 2002 the CIA ordered the first armed Predator missile strike in Yemen. In 2009, the UN requested the U.S. provide legal justification for the CIA’s accountability in these targeted killings. The U.S. refused this request on the grounds that these were undercover operations. The drone attacks continue today, despite a 2010 report to the UN that these attacks, in their lack of transparency about safeguards and legal justification, violate international and human rights laws. Pakistan press estimate that civilian casualties since 2006 may top six hundred (Sharkey, 114-115).

Within this bleak context, how might works like Wilson’s push us toward a more ethical relation with our robot technologies, and indeed with humans through these technologies? On the one hand, Robopocalypse can be read as a cautionary tale about robots overrunning the world and extinguishing humans: an all too familiar apocalyptic narrative about humans and technology. Not uncommonly in fictional narratives and popular media discourses, technology facilitates precisely the “shift of responsibility to the thing one has produced”, that Lokhorst and van den Hoven define as unethical. But Robopocalypse also complicates this narrative, offering an ethical provocation that turns on new collaborations and configurations between humans and machines, thus pointing us to humans and machines as deeply and intimately intertwined. This intimacy in part resists the unethical “shift of responsibility to the thing” and insists we be ethically responsible and accountable technological subjects no less when machines are fused with our bodies than when they are operating thousands of miles from us to kill.

Works Cited:

Čapek, Karel. R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). Trans. Claudia Novack-Jones. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. Print.

Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1999. Print.

Lin, Patrick, Keith Abney, and George A. Bekey. Ethics: The Ethical and Social Implications of Robotics. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012. Print.

Lokhorst, Gert-Jan and Jeroen van den Hoven. “Responsibility for Military Robots.” Robot Ethics:The Ethical and Social Implications of Robotics. Eds. Patrick Lin, Keith Abney, and George A. Bekey. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012. 145-156. Print.

“Roboticist.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press. n. d. Web. 3 March, 2012.

Sharkey, Noel. “Killing Made Easy: From Joysticks to Politics.” Robot Ethics: The Ethical and Social Implications of Robotics. Eds. Patrick Lin, Keith Abney, and George A. Bekey. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012. 111-128. Print.

Wilson, Daniel H. How to Survive a Robot Uprising: Tips on Defending Yourself against the Coming Rebellion. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2005. Print.

Ibid. Robopocalypse. New York: Doubleday, 2011. Print.

About the Author:

Jennifer Rhee is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University. She is working on a book manuscript on the interrelation of contemporary U.S. robotics, artificial intelligence, literature and art.