Robots (and let’s never forget the origin of that word is found in Capek’s R.U.R., where the word means “worker” but implies “slave”), are becoming ubiquitous; economists and society at large are becoming so concerned about the rate at which robots are replacing human workers that serious discussion is being given to both Universal Basic Income and a “Star Trek Future” in which humanity is able to devote itself to learning, adventure and leisure.
It should come as no surprise then that a joint team comprised of members of MIT’s Media Lab (Artificial Intelligence Division) and Hanson Robotics was recently formed to address the need for Fanbots – electronic replacements for geeks and nerds.
“This project actually began in Hollywood”, said Dr. Calvin, Chief Administrator for the project. “Studio heads approached us a few years ago and asked us to blue-sky a response to the negativity that was surrounding, among other things, Disney’s evisceration of the Star Wars extended universe, not to mention Paramount’s problems with Star Trek fan films, the on-going complaints about Fox’s cancellation of Firefly, the regular eruption of re-make hysteria, the encroachment of real world politics into entertainment.”
Calvin went on to explain that the studios were expressing grave concern over the reliability of fans, and concern over the increasing sense of “ownership” fans were expressing regarding favored properties. One director stated that he was “sick and tired of being told what prior works he had stolen his ideas from; another expressed dismay over fan’s insistence that some degree of logicality accompany the plots of entirely fictional characters; marketing division heads complained about the complete and utter unreliability of fan audiences who seemed to select favorites and stinkers in an entirely arbitrary and fickle manner.”
“As you are no doubt aware, robots were initially conceived as simple machines that could replace human workers who were performing relatively simple, repetitive and mind-numbing tasks.”
Today, of course, robots not only perform assembly line jobs, from welding to painting, but are making inroads into health care, security, driving, increasing areas of the hospitality fields (everything from sexbots to hotel concierges to chefs and mixologists), and, of course, the military.
Dr. Wells, lead AI researcher for the team, explained it this way: “Fans are no more than a series of pre-existing conditions that receive input, modify it based on simple internal rules and respond, usually in one of only a handful of pretty standard ways to those external stimuli – GIGO as they used to say.” (That’s an old programmer’s acronym standing for Garbage In, Garbage Out, expressing the idea that if the data going in is bad, the results you get from running the program will reflect that fact.) She went on to say “…actually pretty simple to simulate; most of them can be successfully replicated with a neural learning network with as few as six nodes. They’re based on a variety of fairly well-known, and relatively easily understood emotional responses.
“Fans are not complex at all. For example, take a six axis robotic arm that can be modified to perform a wide range of functions, such as operating a hand drill, painting a fence…One critical aspect of successfully programming that arm is giving the robot a sense of spatial awareness. The robot needs to know where in 3-dimensional space the various parts of its arm are at any given time so that it can use the drill without drilling into itself. Fans, on the other hand, they don’t care where they are so long as they’re engaged in some kind of so-called fannish activity. Spacial awareness is one whole domain of programming we can simply leave out of the equation. Makes it a much simpler task.”
Warming to her subject, Dr. Wells went on: “You want a variety of responses of course and, here again, the requirements for replicating human fans are pretty darned simple. There’s really only two criteria – obsessiveness and contrariness that are accompanied by often astonishing levels of detailed knowledge of one or more subjects. It’s remarkable how much fan-like behavior you can emulate with just those two factors and a deep knowledge base. In fact, during early trials, we had to use the kill switch (ed. a process that shuts the AI down completely) quite frequently. We had one we named Carl that somehow became obsessive over book cover price stickers and had a contrariness factor dialed up to the limits. The only thing Carl would ever talk about were complaints about price stickers ruining the collectible value and/or querying others about ways to remove them. Here’s a sample of one such conversation:
Interviewer (human): “Hey Carl, how you doing today?”
Carl: “I just bought a first edition paperback and the Amazon seller ruined it with one of those god-awful price stickers that can’t be removed.”
Interviewer: “Oh, I’m sorry. Hey, I just saw the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Did you see it?”
Carl: “I never watch TV. I have to remove the price stickers from my books. Why do they insist on ruining the covers of books with price stickers?”
Interviewer: “You really need to get out more, Carl”
Carl: “I can’t ‘get out’. You have not made me ambulatory. It would also be really nice if I had hands. It would make removing these price stickers a lot easier.”
Interviewer: “Carl, have you tried nail polish remover?”
Carl: “I do not have time to put on nail polish. I do not have nails because I do not have hands with which to remove these price stickers.”
Interviewer: “Carl, I didn’t mean use remover on your nails. I meant to help you get the price stickers off.”
Carl: “There are some inks and coatings used in book production that would be dissolved by ethyl acetate. If you insist on going off topic, I will have to end this conversation so that I can figure out how to get these price stickers off.”
(Ed. Note. “Carl” recently produced an article comprised of a six-step process for successfully removing any kind of pricing sticker from a book without damage and using only commonly available household items. The article, titled “Why?” can be found in the latest issues of 770 Rockets, Rank Planet, Lady Journey and Quick Stack, all available on Efanzines.com. We particularly recommend the edible issue of Quick Stack, the only fanzine printed on pancakes.)
Clearly, more work needs to be done, but Dr. Bester, lead “robot psychologist” on the team isn’t fazed by these early results. “A quote normal person unquote – we refer to them as “mundanes” around here – looking at that exchange between Carl and the lab worker would come away thinking that Carl is dysfunctional. Far from it. We’ve conducted a large number of observations of human fan interactions on both the internet and at conventions, and, well, Carl would easily pass a Turing test in either of those contexts, while it’s not entirely clear that all of the humans would.”
To prove his contention, Dr. Bester introduced us to a a group of fanbots that have gotten together and formed their own club, the Robert A. Heinlein Was A ________ Club.
Prior to meeting the group, we were informed by Dr. Bester that one rule of the club states that whichever member is deemed to have won the previous day’s discussion is Chair of the group for the following day and must fill in the blank in the club’s name before new discussions may begin. Another rule states that “old business” – such as determining who won the previous day’s discussion – shall be completed prior to the designation of the day’s Chair.
Bester went on to explain “That seems to be counterproductive, but these Fanbots have absorbed Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, 11th edition, and know how to use “point of order” and “nominations from the floor”, quorum counts, etc., to keep the discussion going. There hasn’t been a word in the blank or a new Chair designated for at least six months. The last fill in was “Camel” as in RAH was a Camel. It was quite an interesting bit of logic and the discussion raged for weeks, until it was determined that the Chair had not actually won the previous day’s discussion and the entry was ruled illegal and removed. I’ll send you a transcript.”
We joined the group mid-discussion. Here’s a bit of it :
Willa: “Heinlein was too a right-leaning libertarian! He was the greatest right wing science fiction author bar none but Jerry Pournelle!”
Meebo:”Jerry Pournelle? He was ok, but, greater than Heinlein? Look at the awards! How many Hugo’s did Jerry win? None”
Willa: “So what? He co-wrote Mote and RAH himself said was the greatest novel he’d ever read!”
WD7: “Can someone recommend to me the best reading order for the Heinlein juvenovels? Should I read them in order of publication or…?”
MorAck: “It depends. Are you including Starship Troopers as a juvenovel?”
Carl: “I just bought a first edition paperback of Starship Troopers. Guess what?”
Siasil, Willa, Meebo, WD7, MorAck, Ferlicity, Don’tcallmethat, Jerrytheman, Dorcas, et al: “It had a pricing sticker on it!”
You’d find nothing unusual about that conversation if it were seen on Facebook.
Clearly the work has progressed quite far on creating robotic replacements for fans, but is no one concerned about the consequences? Will the introduction of Fanbots replace fannish activity by humans? And what impact, if any, will their presence have on Hollywood genre offerings? We posed that question to the researchers and here’s what they had to say:
Calvin: “It’s not going to make any difference whatsoever. The general public sure as heck won’t notice a difference, but if it keeps Hollywood happy that keeps our funding going.”
Wells: “I think the Fanbots are going to get their own fans; Fandom will continue, but in an augmented fashion.”
Bester: “I don’t think it’s going to matter one whit. We’re not the only project like this. There’s a whole bunch of research being done on creating robotic writers and robotic directors, robot producers, robot actors, robot popcorn sellers. Robofans are the perfect response. People can just sit back and enjoy themselves and let the robots fight it out for them.”
This reporter doesn’t disagree with those assessments, but thinks a far more sinister future awaits us. These ‘Fanbots’, whose creation and development is being funded by Hollywood studios, are tools of the studios. It won’t be long after they are rolled out that they’ll come to dominate fannish discourse – when you’re a robot your commenting time is not limited by the need for sleep or any other human function – and you can be sure that their opinions will align with studio wishes. It will form a closed loop – what Hollywood tells us is great and must see will be great and must see because the Robofans will say so. Any piece of dreck Hollywood rolls out will be praised and obsessed over by the Fanbots to the exclusion of all else. Just wait. When Plan 9 From Outer Space rises to the top of the Rotten Tomatoes rankings, you’ll know we’ve crossed the rubicon. (Ed. Note. Amazing Stories in-house Robofan – Ralph – was provided with an advance copy of this editorial and after review said “Oy. So this is what you waste your time with?”. Ralph has recently been affecting a Brooklyn accent.)
Ed. Note. The robot sculptures displayed in our featured image today were created by Lynne Fahnestalk who granted permission for their use here. Lynne is a two time winner of the Canadian Prix Aurora Award for Artistic Achievement, has provided artwork for Amazing Stories magazine, is married to our film reviewer and has a page featuring more of her creations here.