There’s an old joke about the sciences: biology is just applied chemistry, chemistry is just applied physics, and physics is just applied maths. It’s really a neat little quip about essentialism and reductionism. While it’s true that biology can be accurately described as “applied chemistry,” treating living things as alive – and not as a set of chemical reactions no different in principle from making a cup of cocoa or extracting a pigment to use in housepaint – has undeniable utility.
But we draw boundaries. While there are disciplines that straddle biology and chemistry and treat organisms as though the most important thing about them is neither their chemical reactions nor the fact that they are living, we acknowledge that there are two great poles between which these gradations shade. There are a lot of things that we can point to and say, “that’s chemistry” and there’s a lot of things we can point to and say, “that’s biology”.
I’ve been thinking about robots this week, and whether they are a pole – like biology, chemistry, physics and maths – or whether they are an in-between thing, like biochemistry or theoretical physics.
Many classics of science fiction have little trouble with these distinctions. Robert A Heinlein quite happily depicts “brains” – vast computers occupying large complexes, capable of having agency and personality and will – and “robots,” which are mostly humanoid machines that drive themselves according to their own set of rules, of varying degrees of subtlety and complexity. The brains can take over the robots and manipulate them – use them as wireless peripherals, the way that your computer might instruct your printer to run off a page – but it’s pretty clear that the brain’s essential embodiment is whatever’s under that bunker, and not the bits of world-manipulating gadgetry that the brain can command.
Three laws of robotics
Isaac Asimov famously gave us robots with “positronic brains” that obeyed the “three laws of robotics”, which revolved around the subservient and protective nature of robots. And Asimov has especially long-lived robots whose brains are moved from one body to another over time, but my reading of Asimov made it clear to me that a “positronic brain” had some inseparable connection to a body, preferably an anthropomorphic one. There weren’t a lot of positronic refrigerators or clock-radios or fart-machines in Asimov’s future.
For all that Asimov continues to have enormous cachet and resonance in modern discussions of robots, I think that Heinlein’s idea of a brain/body distinction holds up better than Asimov’s. An Asimovian robot always feels like it is something more than a computer in a fancy, mobile case. Heinlein, by contrast, at least locates the most salient fact of the robot in the systems that parse and execute instructions, not the peripherals that receive commands from these systems.
But even Heinlein’s robots quickly break down as a category. A Heinleinian “brain” that drives a humanoid robot around is a brain and not a robot. Even if the humanoid robot were to pick up the brain and carry it around, it would still be a dumb peripheral that is being driven by a “brain.” But once that robot opens up its chest cavity and securely affixes the brain to its internal structure and closes up the door and bolts it shut, it is now a “robot” and considered to have the agency and will that we’ve been imbuing our ambulatory machines with since the golem.
One thing that is glaringly absent from both the Heinleinian and Asimovian brain is the idea of software as an immaterial, infinitely reproducible nugget at the core of the system. Here, in the second decade of the 21st century, it seems to me that the most important fact about a robot – whether it is self-aware or merely autonomous – is the operating system, configuration, and code running on it.
If you accept that robots are just machines – no different in principle from sewing machines, cars, or shotguns – and that the thing that makes them “robot” is the software that runs on a general-purpose computer that controls them, then all the legislative and regulatory and normative problems of robots start to become a subset of the problems of networks and computers.