Toast in the Machine
The robots are coming! (For real.) The robots are coming! (And they mean business.) The robots are coming! (Are you ready?)


by Chuck Klosterman  Jun 01 '04

Like most middle-class white people who will never be shot at, I'm fascinated by the hyperdesperate, darkly realistic, paper-chasing world of postmodern hip-hop. I've learned a lot about life from watching MTV Jams; my understanding of the African-American experience comes from street-hardened artists who have looked into the mouth of the lion and scoffed like soldiers. These are people like Sean Carter ("Jay-Z"), Terius Gray ("Juvenile"), Nasir Jones ("Nas"), and Leslie Pridgen ("Freeway"). And, to a lesser extent, Will Smith ("the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air").

Smith is an intriguing figure, sort of. Unlike his peers, he has evolved with the culture that spawned him. Though once merely peeved by his mother's fashion directives (1988's "Parents Just Don't Understand"), he has grown into a mature artist who's willing to confront America's single greatest threat: killer robots.
This summer, Smith will star in I, Robot , a cinematic interpretation of nine stories by Isaac Asimov. When I was in the sixth grade, Asimov struck me as a profoundly compelling figure, and I delivered a stirring oral book report on I, Robot . The collection was punctuated by Asimov's now famous "Laws of Robotics":

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
4. Do not talk about Fight Club.

Now, I don't think I'm giving anything away by telling you that the robots in I, Robot find a loophole in those principles, and they proceed to slowly fuck us over. I, Robot was published in 1950, but writers (or at least muttonchopped Isaac) were already terrified about mankind's bellicose relationship with technology. This is a relationship we continue to fear. If we have learned only one thing from film, literature, and rock music, it is this: Humans will eventually go to war against the machines. There is no way to avoid this. But you know what? If we somehow manage to lose this showdown, we really have no excuse. Because I can't imagine any war we've spent more time worrying about.

The Terminator trilogy is about a war against the machines; so is the Matrix trilogy. So is Maximum Overdrive , although that movie also implied that robots enjoy the music of AC/DC. I don't think the Radiohead album OK Computer is specifically about computers trying to kill us, but it certainly suggests that computers are not "okay." 2001: A Space Odyssey employs elements of robot hysteria, as do the plotlines of roughly 2,001 video games. I suspect Blade Runner might have touched on this topic, but I honestly can't remember. (I was too busy pretending it didn't suck.) There is even a Deutsch electronica band called Lights of Euphoria; its supposed masterpiece is an album titled Krieg Gegen die Maschinen , which literally translates as "War Against the Machines." This means that even European techno fans are aware of this phenomenon, and those idiots generally aren't aware of anything (except who in the room might have ketamine).

I'm not sure how we all became convinced that machines intend to dominate us. As I type this very column, I can see my toaster, and I'll be honest: I'm not nervous. As far as I can tell, it poses no threat. My relationship with my toaster is delicious, but completely one-sided. If I can be considered the Michael Jordan of My Apartment (and I think I can), my toaster is LaBradford Smith. I'm never concerned that my toaster will find a way to poison me, or that it will foster a false sense of security before electrocuting me in the shower, or that it will align itself politically with my microwave. I even played "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap" in my kitchen just to see if my toaster would become self-aware and go for my jugular; its reaction was negligible. Machines have no grit.

It appears we've spent half a century preparing for a war against a potential foe who—thus far—has been nothing but civil to us. It's almost as if we've made a bunch of movies that warn about a coming conflict with the Netherlands. In fact, there isn't even any evidence that robots could kick our ass if they wanted to . In March, a shadowy military organization called DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) challenged engineers to build a driverless, autonomous vehicle that could traverse a 142-mile course in the Mojave Desert; the contest's winner was promised a cash prize of $1 million. And you know who won? Nobody. Nobody's robot SUV could make it farther than 7.4 miles. Even with the aid of GPS, robots are completely moronic. Why do we think they'll be able to construct a matrix if they can't even drive to Vegas?
I suspect all these dystopic man-versusmachine scenarios are grounded in the fact that technology is legitimately alienating. The rise of computers (and robots, and iPods, and nanomachines that hope to turn the world into sentient "gray goo") has certainly made life easier, but it's also accelerated depression. Case in point: If this were 1904, you would not be reading this magazine; you would be chopping wood or churning butter or watching one of your thirteen children die from crib death. Your life would be horrible, but it would have purpose. It would have clarity. Machines allow humans the privilege of existential anxiety. Machines provide us with the extra time to worry about the status of our careers, and/or the context of our sexual relationships, and/or what it means to be alive. Unconsciously, we hate technology. We hate the way it replaces visceral experience with self-absorption. And the only way we can reconcile that hatred is by pretending machines hate us, too.

It is human nature to personify anything we don't understand: God, animals, hurricanes, mountain ranges, jet skis, strippers, et cetera. We deal with inanimate objects by assigning them the human qualities we assume they would have if they were exactly like us. Consequently, we think of machines as our slaves, and we like to pretend that these mechanized slaves will eventually attempt a hostile takeover.

The truth, of course, is that we are the slaves; the machines became our masters through a bloodless coup that began during the industrial revolution. (In fact, this is kind of what I, Robot is about, although I assume the Will Smith version will not make that clear.) By now, I think many Americans are aware of that reality. I think any smarter-than-average person already concedes that a) we've lost control of technology and b) there's nothing we can do about it.

But that's defeatist. Openly embracing that reality would make the process of living even darker than it already is; we'd all move to rural Montana and become Unabombers. We need to remain optimistic. And how do we do that? By preparing ourselves for a futuristic war against intelligent, man-hating cyborgs. As long as we dream of a war that has not yet happened, we are able to believe it's a war we have not yet lost.
But hey—maybe I'm wrong about all this. Perhaps we humans are still in command, and perhaps there really will be a conventional robot war in the not-so-distant future. If so, let's roll. I'm ready. My toaster will never be the boss of me. Get ready to make me some Pop-Tarts, bitch.

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Q+A: K. Eric Drexler, the father of nanotechnology

Are you like me? Do you sometimes worry that tiny machines will consume the earth in a sinister attempt to destroy our society? If so, the scenario you fear hinges on the idea of "gray goo," a theory proposed by a futurist named K. Eric Drexler. I called Drexler at his desk in Los Altos, California, to figure out how anxious I need to be. —C. K.

ESQ: What is gray goo?

KED [ sighs ]: Gray goo is the hypothetical danger that would arise if somebody built a machine that could create copies of itself using naturally occurring materials and unleashed it on society. Now, this is not easy. Someone would have to solve a very complicated engineering problem, build the machine, and then turn it loose. It would then—theoretically—turn everything in the world into a mass of nanomachines.

ESQ: Why would anyone do this?
KED : Beats me.

ESQ: I get the impression that this is something I don't need to worry about.
KED : This is the danger of alliteration. For example, I think half of the people who talk about the "digital divide" do so because it has an alliterative name; if you called it the "gap in the availability of computing," no one would care. People like the term "gray goo" because it has two g 's. There's nothing gray or gooey about it. And this is all my fault, really.

ESQ: Do you regret creating the term "gray goo"?
KED : It is pretty silly.