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Science Hacks Our Fiction (And The Feeling Is Mutual)

Science fiction loves robots to pieces, but fortunately for genre writers and fans, the feeling is mutual. Engineers and scientists are working near-miracles in the robotics field, and the fruits of their labor are ripe for fiction’s picking. 2012 is still young by most accounts, yet this year robots have already grown tails and scales, acquired aerial speed limits, and learned to swim like a boss. Next they’ll be popping-up in swarms and colonizing our eaves. Or better yet: We’ll wear them on our hands to reduce the repetitive stress injuries we’re causing ourselves by trying to write ever-cleverer new robots into science fiction faster than actual science can render the bots of our dreams obsolete.

Probably the only way we writers can keep up with – or even hope to outpace – the current rate of robotic development is by imagining new purposes and roles for robots. It’s unlikely that scientists and engineers will ever stop endeavoring to simulate humanity and integrate androids into society, as lofty as that goal is. But if real bots must eventually look like and learn like humans, the least we can do is give readers more interesting robots to read about than the one that sweeps floors and amuses cats, or the android in the kitchen with Dinah. We already use droids for offense and defense, manufacturing, and surgery. Robotic search and rescue is a high priority for research and development, and it looks like construction may soon be crawling with bots. So what frontiers does that leave fiction to explore?

Plenty. The world already includes many different kinds of robots with different functions and forms, and the diversity of artificial ‘species’ will only continue to expand (even as natural diversity contracts at an alarming rate). As robots abound, they will inevitably need to interact well with natural species and with each other in order to satisfy human demands. They’ll need to function optimally with a minimum of human guidance, and endure at times in spite of human intervention. Face it: We abuse our tools and hack our toys. Robots need to be resilient just to survive life among humans. There’s enough fodder for stories in those last few sentences alone to keep an author busy for the length of a so-called Golden Age of fiction…

The strange android had stepped from behind an overgrown bougainvillea and disabled their Guardians before they’d even known it was there. “Remain calm, children. I won’t hurt you.” It spoke like a classic film actress, its voice a disarming combination of cultured and flinty that the boys recognized from their seventh grade film history elective but had never heard in person. Read an excerpt from ‘Parent Hack’ by Kay T. Holt

Fully Functional and Anatomically Correct

A few months ago, my sci-fi short, Pieces of You, was published in M-Brane SF magazine. It’s a fairly straightforward coming of age story about a boy and his adoptive android guardian. I knew when I wrote it that I didn’t have everything right about robots, and of course I doubt humans will ever replace existing foster care systems with highly sophisticated machinery. But given recent developments in human simulation, I won’t be shocked to find myself sharing an apartment with a social robot of some kind in the next few years. Even if it is just a cantankerous Roomba.

While doing research for another android guardian story I came across some useful information. As in human colleges, a lot of funding goes toward figuring out how to make better robot athletes, although in this case it’s a good thing because it gives us another reason and perspective from which to consider human and animal locomotion.

But do people really want their appliances to be smarter and more independent than a cat-friendly auto-vac? Yes, especially older people. And if future robots can augment our ability to take care of ourselves, might they also help us take better care of each other? As with engineering robotic football all-stars, developing robots that can simulate emotion is useful because it gives us a new angle for examining how we function.

Maybe house-bots will never amount to more than personal or medical assistants and glorified mechanical pets. And really, if we want much more than that from the machines in our homes, we should probably take the opportunity to re-evaluate the human social structures that make automating our most intimate affairs seem necessary.

Fair warning, the video below is Not Safe For Work!