As our dependence on technology builds and the privacy-destroying, brain-hacking consequences of that start to come to light, we are seeing the return of a science-fiction trope: the rise of the robots. A new wave of television shows, films and video games is grappling with the question of what will happen if we develop the technology to create machines in our own image. Westworld posits that if we could develop realistic androids, we would want to rape and murder them for fun. In Blade Runner 2049, they have replaced humans as sex workers and manual labourers. In the recently released video game Detroit: Become Human, androids are nannies, carers and even pop stars, omnipresent in the home and in city life.
On a recent morning Natanel Dukan walked into the Paris offices of the French robot maker Aldebaran and noticed one of the company's humanoid NAO robots sitting on a chair. Mr. Dukan, an electrical engineer, could not resist. In response the NAO tilted its head, touched his cheek and let out an audible smack. It is certainly a very French application for a robot, but the intimate gesture by the $16,000, two-foot robot, now being used in academic research labs and robotic soccer leagues, also reflects a significant shift. Until recently, most robots were carefully separated from humans.
Human-robot relationships are a running theme in pop culture, from the cylons of Battlestar Galactica to Spike Jonze's film Her and last year's hit show Westworld. But that kind of scenario might not be science fiction much longer. Romance between humans and machines is already nearing the realm of the possible. This year, the California company Abyss Creations plans to start selling a new generation of high-tech sex robots -- dolls that can actually speak and respond to touch. And according to artificial intelligence expert Dr. David Levy, in a few generations, we won't just be having sex with robots, we'll be marrying them.
They are wise-cracking companions, able to communicate in more than six million languages. Others are bent on enslaving or destroying humanity, deeming themselves better, more rational caretakers of the Earth in light of our irrational behaviors. Pilot or garbage man, soldier or slave, hero or villain--robots have played every role imaginable in popular science fiction for nearly a century. In the 21st century, real-life robots inspired by their fictional counterparts are beginning to take starring roles in everyday life. Several companies, Google among them, are testing autonomous cars (unfortunately, there is no indication that they will be able to travel into the past or future anytime soon).