When I was a wee lad in the 1970s and 80s, the idea of robots on Mars was far-fetched fodder for science-fiction stories in comic books. This year, Amazon Studios released a film that shows just how far we have come by making this concept a reality. As a follow-up to last month’s post about a mysteriously unsigned postcard that arrived in my mailbox with a riddle about robots, I’d like to share a few thought-provoking and inspiring videos for the author of that postcard as she works on her robot novel. It turns out I correctly guessed her identity, and we enjoyed some good correspondence about the rise of the robots and our relationships with them.
First up is the 2022 film Good Night Oppy, which I cannot recommend highly enough. It tells the story of the Mars rover Opportunity, NASA’s amazing robot who was expected to last only 90 days but overcame the odds to explore the red planet for fifteen years. Good Night Oppy conveys not only fascinating science but the equally interesting way in which humans can form emotional bonds with robots. It does so through captivating interview clips with people who worked on the project, including people who were so inspired by Opportunity and her mission as teenagers that they eventually grew up to work on the project itself.
The gorgeous musical score and the exquisite recreations of the peaks and perils of Opportunity’s journey by Industrial Light & Magic make this a film not to be missed. It’s currently free to watch for Amazon Prime subscribers, and the cost is more than reasonable for everyone else. Below is the film’s trailer. Though it is in many ways a triumphant tale, you have a more stoic heart than mine if you can make it all the way through without crying.
Another wonderful film that focuses on the artificial-intelligence aspect of robots is currently available to watch for free on YouTube. AlphaGo tells the story of the A.I. developed to master the game of Go and its eventual triumph over the world’s top-rated human Go player. Like Good Night Oppy, this film brings you into the lives of the humans who created this robot and helped it learn, but the big difference here is that the robot was an antagonist in some people’s stories. To the players who faced it, AlphaGo was an enemy—or, at the very least, a competitor.
One of the more interesting subplots in this documentary involves the Go player whose world was shaken by losing to the robot, and who subsequently joined the development team to advance the robot’s potential. Go is an incredibly complex game, perhaps even more difficult to master than chess, and this film does nothing to explain how the game is played. But even if you know nothing about Go, this film is well worth watching.
Even if you don’t play Go and have no plans to travel to Mars anytime soon, our lives are increasingly affected by robots, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. The first robot I encountered was ELIZA, a rudimentary bot that ineptly conversed with my sister and me in the early 1980s on our TRS-80 computer from Radio Shack, back when you could load a videogame from a magnetic cassette tape. These days, I’m a big fan of the Midjourney robot who helps me create digital art for various projects such as blog posts, postcards, and stories.
But one of the most useful applications of autonomous robots to arrive in recent years is in self-driving cars. I have been driving on the roads with other humans for thirty-five years now, and I can testify that humans absolutely SUCK at driving. I’ve had a car totalled by a drunk driver on a holiday weekend, lived though one of my friends running a red light and breaking her neck, and almost been run over in crosswalks a thousand times. We are our own worst enemies, and the stats of traffic fatalities and injuries leave no doubt about that. If you aren’t convinced that self-driving cars are the wave of the future, watch the following video from Derek at Veritasium, then check out his trip in a self-driving cab from a company in Chandler, Arizona.
I love dystopic stories about a future where robots decide that the solution to human problems is the obliteration of humanity. The first and second Terminator movies are all-time favorites of mine. On the other hand, I grew up on Asimov’s robot stories, which tend to be more optimistic. While it is entirely possible—in fact, almost certain—that some organizations and governments will develop robots to oppress and slaughter people, we are also fortunate to be living in an era where robots are being built for scientific exploration, making our lives safer, inspiring us to learn about our universe and improve our lives, and raising questions that help us gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be human. The bots at Chess.com are even helping me sharpen my chess skills.
So, do I fear robots, or do I trust them? The answer is simply yes. Robots are tools, like a hammer. In one person’s hands, a hammer can be used to build a house for safety and shelter. In another pair of hands, the hammer could cave in a human skull. I don’t believe the question is “Are robots good or bad?” The question is “Who are we?” The things we create—robotic or otherwise—will reflect that.
And now, on a lighter note, here is comedian Ryan George.