Clockwork robot


Materials:  tin, plastic
Dimensions:  20 centimeters high
Place acquired:  Brithsh Library gift shop
Place of manufacture:  not known

Small kids (my grandchildren) are attracted by this little robot. But if I wind it up and set it waddling across the floor, they become wary or fearful. So is there something intrinsically worrying about a machine that mimics a human?

Clearly there is, for robots in science fiction are very often the subjects of moral, ethical and ontological dilemma. This one represents Robbie the Robot, who first made an appearance in the 1956 film Forbidden Planet. Up until then most fictional robots had followed the Frankenstein’s monster pattern, whereby the robot is a threatening presence or becomes malign and attacks its creator, or other humans. But back in the 1940s the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov became tired of this trope and famously drafted his three Rules of Robotics:

1.  A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2.  A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3.  A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Robbie was the first fictional robot to be programmed with Asimov’s rules, and was a ‘good’ character in the film. But a rich vein of science fiction has followed that explores the paradoxes, loopholes and contradictions inherent within these rules. Creating artificial intelligence, it seems, is fraught with uncertainty and the danger of it all going horribly wrong.

There is a symmetry here with our feelings about whoever created us. The first three of the bible’s ten commandments show similar concerns. But here we present them as God’s concerns:

1.  You must not have any other god but me.

2.  You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind or an image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea. You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods.

3.  You must not misuse the name of the Lord your God. The Lord will not let you go unpunished if you misuse his name.

God, like Asimov, is clearly trying to set the ground rules for creatures made in his image, just like robots are made in ours. You can sense His (or should we say, our) nervousness at allowing intelligent creatures (ourselves) loose in this world. It could all go so horribly wrong.