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How Science Fiction Dystopianism Shapes the Debate over AI & Robotics
From Hal to the Borg and Cylons, fictional AIs and robots have been out to get us, which is fun as entertainment but doesn’t reflect reality
By Adam Thierer
George Jetson will be born this year. We don’t know the exact date of this fictional cartoon character’s birth, but thanks to some skillful Hanna-Barbera hermeneutics the consensus seems to be sometime in 2022.
In the same episode that we learn George’s approximate age, we’re also told the good news that his life expectancy in the future is 150 years old. It was one of the many ways The Jestons, though a cartoon for children, depicted a better future for humanity thanks to exciting innovations. Another was a helpful robot named Rosie, along with a host of other automated technologies—including a flying car—that made George and his family’s life easier.
Happy Birthday, George Jetson. Image Credit: ABC Television
Most fictional portrayals of technology today are not as optimistic as The Jetsons, however. Indeed, public and political conceptions about artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics in particular are being strongly shaped by the relentless dystopianism of modern science fiction novels, movies and television shows. And we are worse off for it.
AI, machine learning, robotics and the power of computational science hold the potential to drive explosive economic growth and profoundly transform a diverse array of sectors, while providing humanity with countless technological improvements in medicine and healthcare, financial services, transportation, retail, agriculture, entertainment, energy, aviation, the automotive industry and many others. Indeed, these technologies are already deeply embedded in these and other industries and making a huge difference.
But that progress could be slowed and in many cases even halted if public policy is shaped by a precautionary-principle-based mindset that imposes heavy-handed regulation based on hypothetical worst-case scenarios. Unfortunately, the persistent dystopianism found in science fiction portrayals of AI and robotics conditions the ground for public policy debates, while also directing attention away from some of the more real and immediate issues surrounding these technologies.
Incessant Dystopianism Untethered from Reality
In his recent book Robots, Penn State business professor John Jordan observes how over the last century “science fiction set the boundaries of the conceptual playing field before the engineers did.” Pointing to the plethora of literature and film that depicts robots, he notes: “No technology has ever been so widely described and explored before its commercial introduction.” Not the internet, cell phones, atomic energy or any others.
Indeed, public conceptions of these technologies, and even the very vocabulary of the field, has been shaped heavily by sci-fi plots beginning a hundred years ago with the 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), which gave us the term “robot,” and Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film Metropolis, with its memorable Maschinenmensch, or “machine-human.” There has been a deep and rich imagination surrounding AI and robotics since then, but it has tended to be mostly negative and has grown more hostile over time.
Industrial Frankenstein. The Maschinenmensch or "Machine-Human" from Fritz Lang's 1927 film, Metropolis. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The result has been a public and policy dialogue about AI and robotics that is focused on an endless parade of horribles about these technologies. Not surprisingly, popular culture also affects journalistic framings of AI and robotics. Headlines breathlessly scream of how “Robots May Shatter the Global Economic Order Within a Decade,” but only if we’re not dead already because… “If Robots Kill Us, It's Because It’s Their Job.”
Dark depictions of AI and robotics are ever-present in popular modern sci-fi movies and television shows. A short list includes: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Battlestar Galactica (both the 1978 original and the 2004 reboot), Black Mirror, Blade Runner, Ex Machina, Her, The Matrix, Robocop, The Stepford Wives, Terminator, Transcendence, Tron, WALL-E, Wargames and Westworld, among countless others. The least nefarious plots among these films and television shows rest on the idea that AI and robotics are going to drive us to a life of distraction, addiction or sloth. In more extreme cases, we’re warned about a future in which we are either going to be enslaved or destroyed by our new robotic or algorithmic overlords.
Our new overlords. A Cylon from 1978's Battlestar Galactica. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Don’t get me wrong; the movies and shows on the above list are some of my favorites. 2001 and Blade Runner are both in my top 5 all-time flicks, and the reboot of Battlestar is one of my favorite TV shows. The plots of all these movies and shows are terrifically entertaining and raise many interesting issues that make for fun discussions.
But they are not representative of reality. In fact, the vast majority of computer scientists and academic experts on AI and robotics agree that claims about machine “superintelligence” are wildly overplayed and that there is no possibility of machines gaining human-equivalent knowledge any time soon—or perhaps ever. “In any ranking of near-term worries about AI, superintelligence should be far down the list,” argues Melanie Mitchell, author of Artificial Intelligence: A Guide for Thinking Humans.
Contra the Terminator-esque nightmares envisioned in so many sci-fi plots, MIT roboticist Rodney Brooks says that “fears of runaway AI systems either conquering humans or making them irrelevant aren’t even remotely well grounded.” John Jordan agrees, noting: “The fear and uncertainty generated by fictional representations far exceed human reactions to real robots, which are often reported to be ‘underwhelming.’”
The same is true for AI more generally. “A close inspection of AI reveals an embarrassing gap between actual progress by computer scientists working on AI and the futuristic visions they and others like to describe,” says Erik Larson, author of, The Myth of Artificial Intelligence: Why Computers Can’t Think the Way We Do. Larson refers to this extreme thinking about superintelligent AI as “technological kitsch,” or exaggerated sentimentality and melodrama that is untethered from reality. Yet, the public imagination remains captivated by tales of impending doom.
Seeding the Ground with Misery and Misguided Policy
But isn’t it all just harmless fun? After all, it’s just make believe. Moreover, can’t science fiction—no matter how full of techno-misery—help us think through morally weighty issues and potential ethical conundrums involving AI and robotics?
Yes and no. Titillating fiction has always had a cathartic element to it and helped us cope with the unknown and mysterious. Most historians believe it was Aristotle in his Poetics who first used the term katharsis when discussing how Greek tragedies helped the audience “through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.”
But are modern science fiction depictions of AI and robotics helping us cope with technological change, or instead just stoking a constant fear of it? Modern sci-fi isn’t so much purging negative emotion about the topic at hand as it is endlessly adding to the sense of dread surrounding these technologies. What are the societal and political ramifications of a cultural frame of reference that suggests an entire new class of computational technologies will undermine rather than enrich our human experiences and, possibly, our very existence?
The New Yorker’s Jill Lepore says we live in “A Golden Age for Dystopian Fiction,” but she worries that this body of work “cannot imagine a better future, and it doesn’t ask anyone to bother to make one.” She argues this “fiction of helplessness and hopelessness” instead “nurses grievances and indulges resentments” and that “[i]ts only admonition is: Despair more.” Lapore goes so far as to claim that, because “the radical pessimism of an unremitting dystopianism” has appeal to many on both the left and right, it “has itself contributed to the unravelling of the liberal state and the weakening of a commitment to political pluralism.”
I’m not sure dystopian fiction is driving the unravelling of pluralism, but Lapore is on to something when she notes how a fiction rooted in misery about the future will likely have political consequences at some point.
Techno-panic Thinking Shapes Policy Discussions
The ultimate question is whether public policy toward new AI and robotic technologies will be shaped by this hyperpessimistic thinking in the form of precautionary principle regulation, which essentially treats innovations as “guilty until proven innocent” and seeks to intentionally slow or retard their development.
If the extreme fears surrounding AI and robotics do inspire precautionary controls—as they already have in the European Union—then we need to ask how the preservation of the technological status quo could undermine human well-being by denying society important new life-enriching and life-saving goods and services. Technological stasis does not provide a safer or healthier society, but instead holds back our collective ability to innovate, prosper and better our lives in meaningful ways.
Louis Anslow, curator of Pessimists Archive calls this “the Black Mirror fallacy,” referencing the British television show that has enjoyed great success peddling tales of impending techno-disasters. Anslow defines the fallacy as follows: “When new technologies are treated as much more threatening and risky than old technologies with proven risks/harms. When technological progress is seen as a bigger threat than technological stagnation.”
Anslow’s Pessimists Archive collects real-world case studies of how moral panic and techno-panics have accompanied the introduction of new inventions throughout history. He notes, “Science fiction has conditioned us to be hypervigilant about avoiding dystopias born of technological acceleration and totally indifferent to avoiding dystopias born of technological stagnation.”
Techno-panics can have real-world consequences when they come to influence policymaking. Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF), has documented the many ways that “the social and political commentary [about AI] has been hype, bordering on urban myth, and even apocalyptic.” The more these attitudes and arguments come to shape policy considerations, the more likely it is precautionary principle-based recommendations will drive AI and robotics policy, preemptively limiting their potential. ITIF has published a report documenting “Ten Ways the Precautionary Principle Undermines Progress in Artificial Intelligence,” identifying how it will slow algorithmic advances in key sectors.
Similarly, in his important recent book Where Is My Flying Car?, scientist J. Storrs Hall documents how “regulation clobbered the learning curve” for many important technologies in the U.S. over the last half century, especially nuclear, nanotech and advanced aviation. Society lost out on many important innovations due to endless bureaucratic delays, often thanks to opposition from special interests, anti-innovation activists, overzealous trial lawyers and a hostile media. Hall explained how this also sent a powerful signal to talented young people who might have been considering careers in those sectors. Why go into a field demonized by so many and where your creative abilities will be hamstrung by precautionary constraints?
Hall argues that in those crucial sectors, this sort of mass talent migration “took our best and brightest away from improving our lives,” and he warns that those who still hope to make a career in such fields should be prepared to be “misconstrued and misrepresented by activists, demonized by ignorant journalists, and strangled by regulation.”
Is this what the future holds for AI and robotics? Hopefully not, and America continues to generate world-class talent on this front today in a diverse array of businesses and university programs. But if the waves of negativism about AI and robotics persist, we shouldn’t be surprised if it results in a talent shift away from building these technologies and toward fields that instead look to restrict them.
For example, Hall documents how, following the sudden shift in public attitudes surrounding nuclear power 50 years ago, “interests, and career prospects, in nuclear physics imploded” and “major discoveries stopped coming.” Meanwhile, enrollment in law schools and other soft sciences typically critical of technological innovation enjoyed greater success. Nobody writes any sci-fi stories about what a disaster that development has been for innovation in the energy sphere, even though it is now abundantly clear how precautionary principle policies have undermined environment goals and human welfare, with major geopolitical consequences for many nations.
If America loses the talent race on the AI front, it has ramifications for global competitive advantage going forward, especially as China races to catch up. In a world of global innovation arbitrage, talent and venture capital will flow to wherever it is treated most hospitably. Demonizing AI and robotics won’t help recruit or retain the next generation of talent and investors America needs to remain on top.
Flipping the Script
Some folks have had enough of the relentless pessimism surrounding technology and progress in modern science fiction and are trying to do something to reverse it. In a 2011 Wired essay decrying the dangers of “Innovation Starvation,” the acclaimed novelist Neal Stephenson decried the fact that “the techno-optimism of the Golden Age of [science fiction] has given way to fiction written in a generally darker, more skeptical and ambiguous tone.” While good science fiction, “supplies a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place,” Stephenson said modern sci-fi was almost entirely focused on its potential downsides.
To help reverse this trend, Stephenson worked with the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University to launch Project Hieroglyph, an effort to support authors willing to take a more optimistic view of the future. It yielded a 2014 book, Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future that included almost 20 contributors. Later, in 2018, The Verge launched the “Better Worlds” project to support 10 writers of “stories that inspire hope” about innovation and the future. “Contemporary science fiction often feels fixated on a sort of pessimism that peers into the world of tomorrow and sees the apocalypse looming more often than not,” said Verge culture editor Laura Hudson when announcing the project.
Unfortunately, these efforts have not captured much public attention and that’s hardly surprising. “Pessimism has always been big box office,” says science writer Matt Ridley, primary because it really is more entertaining. Even though many of great sci-fi writers of the past, including Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein, wrote positively about technology, they ultimately had more success selling stories with darker themes. It’s just the nature of things more generally, from the best of Greek tragedy to Shakespeare and on down the line. There’s a reason they’re still rebooting Beowulf all these years later, after all.
So, There’s Star Trek and What Else?
While technological innovation will never enjoy the respect it deserves for being the driving force behind human progress, one can at least hope that more pop culture treatments of it might give it a fair shake. When I ask crowds of people to name a popular movie or television show that includes mostly positive depictions of technology, Star Trek is usually the first (and sometimes the only) thing people mention. It’s true that, on balance, technology was treated as a positive force in the original series, although “V’Ger”—a defunct space probe that attains a level of consciousness—was the prime antagonist in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Later, Star Trek: The Next Generation gave us the always helpful android Data, but also created the lasting mental image of the Borg, a terrifying race of cyborgs hell-bent on assimilating everyone into their hive mind.
"You will serve us." The Borg Queen from the 1996 film, Star Trek: First Contact. Image Credit: Paramount Pictures/Wikimedia Commons
The Borg provided some of The Next Generation’s most thrilling moments, but also created a new cultural meme, with tech critics often worrying about how today’s humans are being assimilated into the hive mind of modern information systems. Philosopher Michael Sacasas even coined the term “the Borg Complex,” to refer to a supposed tendency “exhibited by writers and pundits who explicitly assert or implicitly assume that resistance to technology is futile.” After years of a friendly back-and-forth with Sacasas, I felt compelled to even wrap up my book Permissionless Innovation with a warning to other techno-optimists not to fall prey to this deterministic trap when defending technological change. Regardless of where one falls on that issue, the fact that Sacasas and I were having a serious philosophical discussion premised on a famous TV plotline serves as another indication of how much science fiction shapes public and intellectual debate over progress and innovation.
And, truth be told, some movies know how to excite the senses without resorting to dystopianism. Interstellar and The Martian are two recent examples that come to mind. Interestingly, space exploration technologies themselves usually get a fair shake in many sci-fi plots, often only to be undermined by onboard Ais or androids, as occurred not only in 2001 with the eerie HAL 9000, but also Alien.
There are some positive (and sometimes humorous) depictions of robots as in Robot & Frank, or touching ones as in Bicentennial Man. Beyond The Jetsons, other cartoons like Iron Giant and Big Hero 6 offer more kindly visions of robots. KITT, a super-intelligent robot car, was Michael Knight’s dependable ally in NBC’s Knight Rider. And R2-D2 is always a friendly helper throughout the Star Wars franchise. But generally speaking, modern sci-fi continues to churn out far more negativism about AI and robotics.
What If We Took It All Seriously?
So long as the public and political imagination is spellbound by machine machinations that dystopian sci-fi produces, we’ll be at risk of being stuck with absurd debates that have no meaningful solution other than “Stop the clock!” or “Ban it all!” Are we really being assimilated into the Borg hive mind, or just buying time until a coming robopocalypse grinds us into dust (or dinner)?
If there was a kernel of truth to any of this, then we should adopt some of the extreme solutions, Nick Bostrom of Oxford suggests in his writing on these issues. Those radical steps include worldwide surveillance and enforcement mechanisms for scientists and researchers developing algorithmic and robotic systems, as well as some sort of global censorship of information about these capabilities to ensure the technology is not used by bad actors.
To Bostrom’s great credit, he is at least willing to tell us how far he’d go. Most of today’s tech critics prefer to just spread a gospel of gloom and doom and suggest something must be done, without getting into the ugly details about what a global control regime for computational science and robotic engineering looks like. We should reject such extremist hypothesizing and understand that silly sci-fi plots, bombastic headlines and kooky academic writing should not be our baseline for serious discussions about the governance of artificial intelligence and robotics.
At the same time, we absolutely should consider what downsides any technology poses for individuals and society. And, yes, some precautions will be needed of a regulatory nature. But most of the problems envisioned by sci-fi writers are not what we should be concerned with. There are far more specific and nuanced problems AI and robotics confronts us with today that deserve more serious consideration and governance steps. How to program safer drones and driverless cars, improve the accuracy of algorithmic medical and financial technologies, and ensure better transparency for government uses of AI are all more mundane but very important issues that require reasoned discussion and balanced solutions today. Dystopian thinking gives us no roadmap to get there other than extreme solutions.
Imagining a Better Future
The way forward here is neither to indulge in apocalyptic fantasies nor pollyannaish techno-optimism, but to approach these technologies with reasoned risk analysis, sensible industry best practices, educational efforts and other agile governance steps. In a forthcoming book on flexible governance strategies for AI and robotics, I outline how these and other strategies are already being formulated to address real-world challenges in fields as diverse as driverless cars, drones, machine learning in medicine and much more.
A wide variety of ethical frameworks, offered by professional associations, academic groups and others, already exists to “bake in” best practices and align AI design with widely shared goals and values while also “keeping humans in the loop” at critical stages of the design process to ensure that they can continue to guide and occasionally realign those values and best practices as needed.
When things do go wrong, many existing remedies are available, including a wide variety of common law solutions (torts, class actions, contract law, etc.), recall authority possessed by many regulatory agencies, and various consumer protection policies and other existing laws. Moreover, the most effective solution to technological problems usually lies in more innovation, not less. It is only through constant trial and error that humanity discovers better and safer ways of satisfying important wants and needs.
These are complicated and nuanced issues that demand tailored and iterative governance responses. But this should not be done using inflexible, innovation-limiting mandates. Concerns about AI dangers deserve serious consideration and appropriate governance steps to ensure that these systems are beneficial to society. However, there is an equally compelling public interest in ensuring that AI innovations are developed and made widely available to help improve human well-being across many dimensions.
So, enjoy your next dopamine hit of sci-fi hysteria—I know I will, too. But don’t let that be your guide to the world that awaits us. Even if most sci-fi writers can’t imagine a better future, the rest of us can.