Friday, November 19, 2010

So, whatcha working on?

Every writer dreads that question at cocktail parties.  A lot of times we can't always clearly articulate the story or the reasons why a particular question fascinates us.

For instance, I was asked a few weeks ago what I was working on and with excitement I said:

 "It's an adaptation of Pygmalion but its about robotics and robot-human relations, but with puppets, and actual robots, and it'll be nonlinear, with movement, y'know, like a big ensemble piece, spreading out over several centuries of time."

I realized that the person I was talking to probably thought I was adapting the play Pygmalion by Shaw (which I'm not), rather than going straight back to the Greek source of the Pygmalion myth.  Not that it would've made my project less confusing.  

I really have to get better at talking about my work.  Seriously.

The problem is, whenever I start a new idea, I'm nervous and excited and not sure how the project will evolve over time.  This newest project, Approaching Eve, is only a few weeks old.  I’m knee deep in research, reading books about robots (real robots, not sci-fi robots), and Descartes, and about karakuri (which are mechanized puppets).  And yes, it's about the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea.  Not entirely, but its present.

See, here’s the thing—we’re going to increasingly see robots interacting with humans, moving out of the manufacturing plants and into our daily lives, becoming healthcare assistants, cleaning houses, or driving cars.  My mom already has one of those little vacuuming robots (aren’t they cute!).  

As scientists get closer to robots resembling or behaving like humans, what are the dangers and what are the benefits?  How has the science of robotics already transformed our lives, and what will the future hold?

These questions are no longer questions reserved for science fiction writers.  These are questions scientists are grappling with right now.  Today.

(By the way, that photo is of a real robot that mimics emotions, called Nexi.)

The idea of robots were “invented” almost a hundred years ago.  The word “robot” actually comes from a play by Karel Capek, a Czech writer (the origin of the word actually relating to the word “worker” or “slave”).  That play, Rossum’s Universal Robots (R.U.R.) debuted in 1921.  

Since then, in the western world, the story of robots taking over and killing us all has dominated.  This is evident in movies such as Terminator and The Matrix.  In Japan, they actually don’t have the same fears, mostly due to religion, but also their view of animatronics and automatons (as evident in the very cool mechanized puppets, the karakuri, which was invented in the 17th century). 

Robots have gone from a sci-fi idea to a reality.

The only comparison I can have to that phenomena is for me to imagine a vampire or a werewolf being discovered as a scientific fact.  If humanity learned that the Twilight series was based on true events, and then we actually met real vampires and had to find a way to coexist with them, there would be a lot of fear and anxiety about that.  They’re not human and they’re quite dangerous.

So far, we don’t have that problem.  Vampires and werewolves are not real.

Robots, however, are very real.  And they’ve been around for decades.  And soon they’ll be in our homes.  So how will they act around us and how will we act around them?

And these are the questions for my show.  

More to come.

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