What do robots dream of? by Katia Elkaim



Spot!

This is the name of the robot dog developed by Boston Dynamics, now on sale on the company's website. All it takes is one click and a few savings - quite a bit of savings - to put this animal in your virtual shopping cart.


The purchaser of this marvel of technology can choose between three variants, the common point of which is undoubtedly a rather ugly look: a mass of industrial yellow steel with four legs. Clearly, the communication focuses on the hard-working character of the creature, even if in the short introductory film, Spot and his fellow dog - who also has to be called Spot - lie down in a very "faithful dog" manner at the feet of his caretaker, who makes us feel the satisfaction of a day's work accomplished. Subtly, the manufacturer suggests that Spot's vocation is also to be a pet, even if his unattractive body is light-years away from a pink-bellied puppy.


Moreover, a few mouse scrolls further down, we come across an even more amazing robot: "Atlas", a humanoid that rolls and steps in artistic gymnastics. It's so bluffing that you end up seeing a teenage athlete disguised as a Darth Vader soldier. But let's come back to Spot and his future handlers, who won't need to potty train him or teach him to stay in his basket without crying, or how to come back when he is called instead of running around impertinently at the other end of the garden.


Perhaps in the not too distant future, the only animals our children will be able to see in a zoo will be insects, but not bees, which will be long gone, like the 26,300 species that become extinct every year. Who knows what will replace the rhino when it has been totally eradicated from this earth, which will happen in less than a few decades if, like today, a thousand of these great animals are killed every day for their horns? Will an elephant called "Jumbo" carry with its metal trunk tons of tree logs instead of the tractors that have already partially replaced their flesh and blood congeners? Will the little ones be told the story of "Isengrin" the mechanical wolf, a vague reminiscence of the original version, which chases into the forest - but will there still be a forest? - Teddy Pippo, the virtual polar bear?


Yes, these are fantastic subjects for a writer of anticipation ; yes, but too late, because here we are, and in 1966 Philip K. Dick, the brilliant author of "Do androids Dream of Electric Sheep", had already staged a world emptied of its animals, replaced by machines, and a man's dream of acquiring a live sheep. In this novel, adapted for the cinema under the cult title of "Blade runner", the hero uses a test of empathy to differentiate androids from humans. Empathy, which is the ability not only to feel the other person's emotions but also to share them and identify with the one who suffers, appears to be such a human attribute that it seems unthinkable, even to a science fiction writer, to imagine that a machine could be gifted with it and yet…


What history teaches us is that humans have always been caught up by humans themselves. In 1966, colour television was not available in Europe and it took a long time before people stopped getting up from their sofas to change channels. Three years later, we were walking on the moon. How can we not be convinced that empathy, sadness or love are essential human structural components and that they will never be the prerogative of machines? However, humans that we are, have already taught robots how to imitate how these emotions manifest themselves in an appropriate way, like Spot who goes to lie at his master's feet, reproducing the expression of the living animal that is resting.


If saying that reality has overtaken fiction has become commonplace, let's wait and see when we can say again that fiction has regained the upper hand.

For more information:

www.bostondynamics.com

Philip K. Dick: Do androids dream of electric sheep?

Blade runner: Ridley Scott, 1982

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