Jun 13 2011

The Intertwined Histories of Artificial Life and Civil Rights


All modern tales of robots, automatons and other would-be humans trace a lineage to Mary Shelley’s 1817 masterpiece Frankenstein:  The Modern Prometheus. This is a story of a tinkerer (named Victor Frankenstein) stitching together dead body parts, and then enlivening the assembly with galvanic charge (resulting in “the monster” pop culture mistakenly calls Frankenstein).  It is the forerunner of many variations on human-makes-imitation, imitation-feels-aggrieved, imitation-goes-amok, human-regrets-imitation.

The imitations may be of flesh, as in Frankenstein, or of a kind of bio-plastic, as in Karel Capek’s 1920 play that gave us the word “robot” –  R.U.R (Rossum’s Universal Robots).  Alternatively, the imitations can really look robotic with metallic composite bodies such as in the film I, Robot, starring Will Smith.  Or, copies can be completely virtual as in the avatars deployed against humans in The Matrix.

The imitation’s grievance is generally traceable to a lack of acceptance, as in Frankenstein, or second-class citizenry, as in Astro Boy (originally created in manga format as Tetsuwan Atomu by Osamu Tezuka in the aftermath of World War II).  The sense of rejection may then express itself as reverse specism at perceived human inferiority, the sentiment of the Cylons of Battlestar Galactica. The resulting mayhem may be a handful of murders, as in Frankenstein, or an effort to kill only the “bad humans,” as in I Robot, or total genocide of almost all humans, as in R.U.R. And the sense of regret runs the gamut of quests to kill the Frankenstein, hunt down only potentially dangerous robots or prohibit any kind of artificial intelligence.

The imitations do not always go berserk.   Some use self-pity to deal with the rejection and discrimination.  The sadly earnest robot boy in Spielberg’s AI endlessly searches for a mother’s love, ultimately drowning himself in the quest.  The stoically diligent robot servant in Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg’s novel Positronic Man (the basis for Bicentennial Man starring Robin Williams) reinvents himself as a blood-based dying human.  Even without anti-human violence, the imitations always tend to feel the Frankenstein monster’s sense of abandonment and the humans always tend to feel Victor Frankenstein’s regret at creating an imitation.   After all, a Mother did dump the cute AI kid by the side of a highway (she did kindly leave him with his robot Teddy), and a Father did kick the Bicentennial Man out of the house he immaculately maintained.

Empowerment (via creation of an imitation) followed by Disappointment (due to the imitation feeling separate, unequal, unloved and/or threatened).  Conflict (arising out of humanity’s inadequate response to the imitation’s unhappiness) followed by Regret (based on humanity’s disdain for the conflict).  These are the themes of robots and other human-like creations:  Rising expectations, crashing expectations, agitation and lamentation.  These also are the age-old themes of civil rights.

It was in the very same time frame of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the early 1800s, when our modern concepts of civil rights came into being.  While rights for preferred demographic groups date to antiquity, only around the time of Frankenstein did civil rights per se, i.e., the notion that anyone who values being free should be free, become a popular concept.  The American and French Revolutions, in 1776 and 1791, respectively, set the stage for civil rights with brilliant declarations of freedom understandable by the masses.  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”  Yet, in fact, these revolutions were for free white men.  Hence, as recounted in Hochschild’s Bury the Chains, as of the late 1700s the vast majority of people in the world believed slavery was part of life, and that it had always been part of life, and always would be.  It was blessed in the bible and it was the economic foundation of the European empires.  The new French republic repulsed slave rebellions in its territories.  Women were no freer under George Washington than they were under King George.

It took an unprecedented generation-long public education effort, led by the self-freed slave Olaudah Equiano and the Cambridge-educated free-thinker Thomas Clarkson, to persuade the English public that “slaves were people” too.  Of course everyone realized that a slave’s body was that of a human, but very few thought that a slave’s soul was that of a person, certainly not that of a free person.  This was a massive education effort culminating in documents such as Britain’s 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, Britain’s 1818 Treaties with Spain, France and Portugal to ban the slave trade, and New York State’s decision, in 1817, to forbid slavery as of July 4th, 1827.  It took bestselling books and countless lectures that brought the heartfelt personhood of former slaves crashing into the minds of free people.  Common citizens began to understand, en masse, that someone who felt like them, even if born a slave, deserved to be treated like them.

Of course there was no “Autobiography of Frankenstein’s Monster,” as there was of Frederic Douglass.  There was no “Vindication of the Rights of Frankenstein’s Monster,” as there was of Woman, thanks to Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 polemic.  There were no real imitations of humans to create such calls to conscience.

Slaves, women and other oppressed people occupied the role of being an imitation of a human.  By bringing an African across the ocean to the plantation, an imitation of a human had been created – a slave – someone that looked (somewhat, to white people) human, but lived a boxed life of labor, torment and possession.   The act of enslavement was an empowerment for the masters, a human creation not different in kind than Frankenstein’s monster.   In quite an analogous manner the taking of a (usually) girl as one’s wife, in an age without recourse to divorce or remedy for spousal abuse, was another kind of enslavement.  By marrying a girl an imitation of a human had been created – a wife – someone that seemed (oddly, to men) human, but lived a boxed life of labor (until she died of it), torment and possession.  The act of betrothal was empowering for the husbands, but the creation of a wife was rarely followed with love or equal status.  Instead, her second-class citizenship was impressed upon her as firmly as the brand upon an African slave.

Just as has been the plotline in imagined technological imitations of humans, second-class citizenship for women and racial minorities was met with resentment and conflict.  The rising expectations of Africans born in the Americas were slapped down by racism.  The rising expectations of women empowered by the industrial revolution were crushed by sexism.  These dashed hopes fueled decade after decade of conflict – the long march of civil rights from the 1860s to the 1960s.

In the past two centuries, imitations of life and civil rights have swirled about each other like a strand of DNA.   The fictional imitations evolved from being called “monsters” or “things” by Shelley to “robot” meaning “forced worker” in Slavic by Capek.  Meanwhile, the socially constructed imitations evolved from being called “slaves” or “chattel” in the early 1800s to being called “coloreds” in the 1920s.  Women went from having no property rights in a marriage to equal rights.  The birth of artificial intelligence (AI), in the 1950s, gradually made Frankenstein-like stories plausible, albeit with digital persons rather than fused body parts.   A decade later, in 1968, we had a credible digital person, HAL, in Kubrick’s film 2001 A Space Odyssey, running America’s first spaceship to Jupiter, and (again) feeling aggrieved, and then going amok as he murdered crewmen.   As 1960s-era fictional robots and digital creations murdered humans on movie screens out of paranoia and resentment of second-class citizenship, out in the streets real world riots flared from equivalent emotions.

Meanwhile, America’s Civil Rights Movement slowly gathered steam with women’s voting rights in the 1920s, and African-American enforceable rights in the 1960s.  Some of the intertwined arc of robotics and civil rights can be appreciated in the life of a single great 20th century actor, Spencer Tracy.   He had his Broadway debut, in 1922, as a robot in R.U.R., and his Hollywood sunset, in 1967, as the sanctifier of a pioneering inter-racial marriage in Guess Whose Coming to Dinner. Gay, lesbian and even transgender rights arose in the 1980s upon an expanding platform of feminist and people of color successes.  Hence, few were surprised when, in 1989, Star Trek: The Next Generation aired its “Measure of a Man” episode, heralding the civil rights of digital people such as Commander Data.  The 200-year convergence of artificial life and civil rights has arrived.

Today most people regret treating Africans, other immigrants and women as second-class citizens, or much worse.  We realize that when we mistreated the “imitation” of a person – the wife of a husband, or the slave of a master – we unleashed an inevitable flood of resentment and conflict.  As in the cultural history of robots, automatons and other imitations, we realize at the end of the trail of tears that it was all so unnecessary.  Had Victor Frankenstein loved his creation, it would not have gone berserk.   Had all immigrants been treated equally, there would not be the fear, loathing and bloodshed that accompanied the march of civil rights.  Had men cherished the magic of women’s bodies, and partnered on the basis of equality, uncountable lives would not have been torn asunder in domestic discord.

The lesson of the intertwined cultural histories of techno-human imitations and civil rights is clear:  that which values life, regardless of its form, heritage or substrate, will demand to be respected in its value of life.   Tolerate substrate diversity easily in its beginnings, or tolerate it hard in the end.   If something thinks like a human, it will want to be loved, it will resent being abandoned and it will channel its anger in strange and unpredictable ways.  Better for all that we love, nurture and respect that which we create in our likeness.

Copyright Martine Rothblatt 2011