The 2008 Brighton Science Festival, which began on Saturday, comprises nine days of science-themed events, from physics demonstrations and maths debates to three nights of cabaret at the Joogleberry – and you don’t have to be a Star Trek fan or a computer geek to get involved. Although it probably helps. Personally I know more about potato chips than silicon chips, but that didn’t stop me attending a free workshop on Monday evening entitled ‘Can Robots Love?’.
Anyone expecting a night of passion with Metal Mickey may have gone away disappointed, but the event turned out to be a fascinating discussion on robot ethics. You know you’ve had a good evening when you meet a woman who’s brainwashed a dog, someone who’s had a relationship with a mobility scooter, and a lady from the Czech Republic who talks to her pet robot. And that was just the audience.
The evening was led by a young lady called Claire Rocks (which is more of a description than a name). Claire has a PhD in Space Robotics and was involved with the Beagle 2 Mars probe. Her achievements seemed all the more galling as she looked young enough to be my daughter. But still, Beagle 2 crashed, so I shouldn’t feel inferior.
Claire and her friends had come all the way from the Science Communication Unit at the University of the West of England, which for anyone without a degree in Geography, is in Bristol. I had been expecting them to tell us about robot love, but as it turned out, the audience were the stars of this show. We were seated in groups as we went in, each group was given two envelopes, and our mission was to watch a film clip, open an envelope, and then read the contents aloud. It was a lot like Oscar night, but without the tears.
Our first clip was the scene from ‘Artificial Intelligence’ where the mother programs her robot son, and the contents of our envelope read:
“Can a robot love? Can a robot be loved? What does love mean in this context?”
That prompted one member of our group to announce that she’d managed to imprint her ex-boyfriend’s dog, but refused to tell us how she did it. I thought that was a bit odd until she went on to talk of her love for mobility scooters, and the fact that she has a closer relationship with her current one (which is apparently female and a bit of a madam) than she has with a lot of humans.
I looked to the Czech lady to my right for something more sensible, and she responded by turning to me, smiling, and saying that she keeps a pet robot in the living room where all the family can talk to it. After five minutes, my girlfriend was making the most sense (what are the odds?) and I was feeling a bit of a freak for not having a pet name for my car.
But we covered the three questions in about ten minutes, I mentioned that I love my girlfriend more than my cat, she said “thanks” in a sarcastic voice, and I had an argument with a scientist about when the internet was invented. At which point we moved on to film clip number two: a scene from ‘Blade Runner’. This time our question was...
“Would robots have sexual rights and who would determine what these rights are?”
I’m not sure if this was an over-18s event or not, but having sat in a circle with six strangers for ten minutes discussing bestiality, rape, murder and porn, I’m hoping there weren’t any children present. Especially when my girlfriend said that if she wants to abuse her robot, she should be allowed to. I’ve cancelled my plans to buy her a Furby. As for me, I was obviously far too vocal on the subject of robot sex, and was duly nominated as our official spokesperson, meaning that I had to report our findings back to the rest of the room. I felt like the Alfred Kinsey of the 21st century.
My girlfriend and I clearly made quite an impression (it’s not easy to discuss robot ethics confidently from a position of complete ignorance), and were specially selected afterwards to be interviewed by a member of the team about our experience. We told her we’d both enjoyed it, and then proved it by heading to the nearest branch of Subway and continuing to argue about the rights of robots for 20 minutes. I’m not sure machines will ever replace humans, but I think a robot would have given me more cheese in my sandwich.