“Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.”― Mary Shelley, Frankenstein


In my last post, I was exploring why we are scared of the future, a fact that emerged is that there is no one word or phobia to cover ‘fear of the future’. Dread as in ‘Fearful expectation or anticipation’ is the closest in English. There is metathesiophobia or tropophobia  which is a fear of making changes or moving, which account for what the future heralds but nothing definitive.


While searching, the other alternative is the fear of robots as an expression of the future. This is fascinating, considering that recently there have been a series of articles that have focused on the next big consumer trend being robots. With titles like ‘Consumer Robots Everywhere: The Next Big thing’ at SXSW, , in Forbes they are writing about Robot Block Parties , also here, here or here – but just citing links gets a bit automated. Technologically, we appear to have hit the tipping-point where the consumer massification of robots is possible. While we tend to think of anthropomorphic robots, home vacuums, self-parking cars or even Google’s self-driving cars are indicators of the expansion of this trend in non-humanoid forms.


The Mar’s Rovers heralded the possibilities of strange unconventional robots working beyond expectations . However, as with Mars, the real desire is to land a human there, not just send robots. Likewise, when we start to make robots, the real desire like Geppetto is to create a human-like robot. How will we feel about this when we are already uncertain of a future?


“The world of the future will be an even more demanding struggle against the limitations of our intelligence, not a comfortable hammock in which we can lie down to be waited upon by our robot slaves.”
Norbert Wiener, The Human Use Of Human Beings: Cybernetics And Society


Are we scared of Robots?


Are we scared of Robots? Robophobia or Grimwade’s Syndrome: are ways of encapsulating the fear of robots. Grimwade’s Syndrome actually comes from a Tom Baker Dr Who episode, where the production assistant, Peter Grimwade complained of having to work on too many robot episodes. The fear of robots, as artificial representations of humanity, fit into a broader psychological phobia of ‘The Uncanny’ that was discussed by Freud (1919).  ‘Uncanny’ from the German: Das Unheimliche, “the opposite of what is familiar”. This work built on an earlier article by Ernst Jentsch (1906) who introduced the study of the cognitive dissonance when confronted with the ‘uncanny’ in our lives. In discussing dolls and automata of the time he suggests they rise:

‘Doubts [as to] whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate….’

It’s fascinating to think of the young Mary Shelly writing Frankenstein in 1818 here; theuncanny monster that was both alive and dead, created by cutting edge modern technology of electricity. An image of our fear and horror ever since.


This psychological insight was further explored within the complex psychoanalytic theory of abjection by Julia Kristiva (1980) in exploring the ‘powers of horror’. The term abjection literally means ‘the state of being cast off’. Abjection from a broad perspective describes those things that are human in some sense but not in others. The frequently cited example is seeing a corpse and feeling revulsion or nausea as it reminds us of our own materiality and mortality. At the same time we are drawn to it but also repulsed. Kristiva states it is ‘not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite’. A more detailed discussion on abjection can be found here  or here.  In the context of this discussion, the ‘uncanny’ disturbs our sense of identity as the abject – they transgress the boundaries of norms or the known. Robots are close to living but aren’t, they are simulacrums of life that confront us and potentially repulse us.


How long have we made Robots?


As much as we might be scared of robots, we’ve also been fascinated by the capacity of the animated inanimate. We can go back to the Egyptians to see statues that were clever deceptions, that allowed wine to flow from the mouth of statues. In Greek mythology there were many examples of mechanised beings, eg Talos was a giant man of bronze that circled Crete three times a day to protect it. It’s possible there were other mechanised devices active in Greece: the Antikythera Mechanism is a surviving artefact that appears almost modern in its complexity. King Solomon’s thone was believed to have been animated with the animals moving as part of the decorations and there are many other classic examples.


Culture Decanted

The Bronze Talos of Crete


In Medieval times, automatons became more complex and interactive. Jessica Riskin  describes the trend and adoption of these mechanised beings:

Neither category of contraptions signified, in the first instance, what machine metaphors for living creatures later came to signify: passivity, rigidity, regularity, constraint, rote behavior, soullessness. Rather, the machines that informed the emergence of the early modern notion of the human-machine held a strikingly unfamiliar array of cultural and philosophical implications, notably the tendencies to act unexpectedly, playfully, willfully, surprisingly, and responsively. Moreover, neither the idea nor the ubiquitous images of human-machinery ran counter to Christian practice or doctrine. Quite the contrary: not only did automata appear first and most commonly in churches and cathedrals, the idea as well as the technology of human-machinery was indigenously Catholic. The church was a primary sponsor of the literature that accompanied the technology of lifelike machines, and the body-machine was also a recurrent motif in Scholastic writing.


culture decanted

A Devil Automaton


In the 17thC, Descartes and other mechanistic thinkers were describing the human body through the metaphor of an automaton designed by God that was joined with the immaterial soul, an idea that found a receptive audience in an age that was increasingly fascinated by the mechanistic . Although, Descartes connection to robots was reputably more personal:

Since the eighteenth century, there has been in circulation a curious story about Descartes. It is said that in later life he was always accompanied in his travels by a mechanical life-sized female doll which, we are told by one source, he himself had constructed ‘to show that animals are only machines and have no souls’. He had named the doll after his illegitimate daughter, Francine, and some versions of events have it that she was so lifelike that the two were indistinguishable. Descartes and the doll were evidently inseparable, and he is said to have slept with her encased in a trunk at his side. Once, during a crossing over the Holland Sea some time in the early 1640s, while Descartes was sleeping, the captain of the ship, suspicious about the contents of the trunk, stole into the cabin and opened it. To his horror, he discovered the mechanical monstrosity, dragged her from the trunk and across the decks, and finally managed to throw her into the water. We are not told whether she put up a struggle.  (my emphasis).


The Captain’s reaction was to the abject nature of the simulated human. The thinking of this reaction was taken up in 1970, by the technologist Masahiro Mori who forwarded ‘the Uncanny Valley’ theory explains peoples responses to humanlike robot would abruptly shift from empathy to revulsion as it approached, but failed to attain, a lifelike appearance. . Although, subsequent studies in the area have suggested it might be better to talk of an ‘uncanny cliff’(2007) or an ‘uncanny wall’ (2011)  in that you have to take into account the increasing sophistication of the viewer to discern the ‘uncanny’. The consolidated view is that it’s relatively hard to replicate humanity.


Robots in popular culture


It’s easy to find examples of our fear of Robots in a range of Hollywood films spanning recent decades. Star Trek’s shocking death and rebirth of Lieutenant Ilia as a synthetic human had these elements of both a shocking twist and abjection; forcing Willard Decker to learn to love a machine in V’Ger and a machine to love ‘carbon units’. Toy Story 2 created the same abjection effect with the mutilated toys that defiled the ‘happy family’ of the first film. Blade Runner, Westworld and Terminator confront us with Robots that make us question what humanity is. iRobot literally gave us an ‘Uncanny Valley’ of robots.


Culture Decanted


Of course, if we look deeper into the automaton, looking into what represents Tin Man’s heart we realise robots don’t need bodies. We see that artificial intelligence is a topic that is increasingly being explored by Hollywood outside of traditional robot bodies. Software can be a robot, disembodied from physical form. An app is a robot. We get the darkside, from the global-controlling self-awareness in the Cyberdyne Systems Skynet computer, of the Terminator franchise; to human minds entering the computer world in Lawnmower Man or Transcendence; to positive tales of post-Siri love in the film ‘her’.


culture decanted


It’s not a surprise that we are thinking more carefully about our creations, with the realisation that we are approaching technologically almost ‘god like’ powers. Knowing that, if they reflect us with free-will being so central to us, we’re fearful of what our creations will do with autonomy.


The positive creation-story is Pinocchio-esque, in Spielberg’s A.I. where David struggles to ‘love’ as we do. The film also shows the ‘uncanny valley’ abjection in how humans relate to this this little boy, challenging us as an audience in whose behaviour we find more abject.


culture decanted

The other face of creation was explored in Battlestar Galactica as a theme of the Cylons, a group of robots looking for a deeper divine purpose to their creation than man. Superior in many ways to humans, they launch an almost genocidal war against humanity. This narrative will be dominant in cinemas shortly with this plot central to the next Avengers Movie, ‘The Age of Ultron’, which is a very similar theme of man’s robotic creations gone wrong. In this case, the creations of Gordon Pym.


culture decanted

The age of the Robot


The Rise of the Robot is with us as technology is advancing, whether we are ready or not. As Bryjolfsson and McAffee state in ‘the second machine Age’


Now comes the Second Machine Age. Computers and other digital advances are doing for mental power—the ability to use our brains to understand and shape our environments—what the steam engine and its descendants did for muscle power. They’re allowing us to blow past previous limitations and taking us into new territory.


There are some more immediate and tangible economic fears for many


‘Advances in digital technology could lead to unemployment for some, while providing great bounty for others, thereby increasing inequality.  Concern about the impact of technology and innovation on jobs is not new. The protests of the Luddites against mechanised looms in early 19th century Britain were followed by unprecedented economic growth that was eventually quite widely shared’.


Robots mean that it’s likely the labour markets will be re-organised in substantial ways


 Robots mean that labor costs don’t matter much, so you might as well locate in advanced countries with large markets and good infrastructure (which may soon not include us, but that’s another issue). On the other hand, it’s not good news for workers!


Or that many humans will be redundant 


Whereas before economists worried that investments in information technology weren’t paying off, now the fear is that they are becoming so efficient that there will be no role left for humans to play.



About ten years ago, I had the opportunity to attend a brilliant Edward De Bono lecture on thinking. One of his observations that stuck with me was his advice and warning that very soon computers will be able to do everything that a human can do, with the exception of ‘creativity’. It’s interesting that in the ‘Second Machine Age’ the advice is a bit more tempered – their advice that moving into this new era ‘Ensuring people learn skills that machines cannot currently easily replace such as creativity, innovation and ideation (coming up with ideas)’ (my emphasis).


“The robot is going to lose. Not by much. But when the final score is tallied, flesh and blood is going to beat the damn monster.”

Adam Smith