Duality, Materialism and Why People Like Robots

Can a robot be capable of thought, creativity and emotion?

Many people and religions would answer “no”, believing that some spirit or soul within us is responsible for our thoughts.  This concept is known as Duality: the idea that the body and thoughts are two different things.  However, in the past hundred years or so, work on computers and the study of such natural phenomena as Emergent Behaviour have led to the materialistic belief that the mind can be explained in terms of  nuts and bolts and levers arranged in different patterns (or more accurately through an arrangement of cells and electrical impulses).

Now, materialism has been a common theme in SF for the past few decades.  One manifestation of this is the “mind running on a computer” idea. After all, if a mind is not some separate spirit or soul, and is instead just the result of physical interactions, then why can’t those interactions be modelled on a computer, pretty much the same way as the World is now modelled on Google Earth?  I used this idea myself in my Recursion trilogy where minds hopped freely back and forth between processing spaces. But whilst writing Divergence, the last book in the series, I became aware of the following problem: once we accept the ideas of minds jumping back and forth between computers, we are almost back at the idea of “souls” jumping between physical containers. On an intellectual level we are thinking “Materialism”, but subconsciously we are back at Duality.

So I decided to write a book that was unmistakeably materialistic.  I came up with the idea of using robots, robots that would take a piece of wire and twist it into a new mind. These robots would seek out metal to make children, and, when resources were short, they would fight other robots for metal just as humans fight each other for land and food.  I liked the idea, and the novel that eventually became Twisted Metal began to unfold. The novel deals with robots that are capable of thought, creativity and emotion, and of anger, hatred and irrationality, but each with a mind made up of nothing more than a piece of metal twisted into shape by his or her mother.

But I digress.  I wanted to say why I think people like robots.  And I think it’s this fascination that they are the same as us, but oh so different.  You take a piece of metal, you twist it into a robot, and what you have there is exactly what you built.  It may malfunction and try and kill you, it may learn how to love you, or it may just hoover the carpet, but what you are looking at is materialism in action.  And this, for many people, is their first glimpse that the world may be stranger than they think…

(The above originally appeared as an article in SciFi Now Magazine)


8 Responses to Duality, Materialism and Why People Like Robots

  1. Dr Mohammed Ali Khan says:

    Minds will not transfer from hardware to hardware because they are intrinsically the product of those very hardware.. The trillions of synaptic connections that is in a human brain IS the mind.. There is no way they can be exactly transferred.. Ergo.. Minds cannot be transferred.. What do you think?

    • Exactly transferred- I think you’re probably right. Even supposing someone could build an exact copy of a brain, I doubt they could exactly map the chemistry of each synapse at a given instant: to get the exact balance of e.g. calcium ions at the time of the copy for each of the synapses. I would guess that looking at something at this level would also be subject to the uncertainty principle. Therefore, we would only get a rough copy. I wonder if this rough copy of brain would “heal” itself, converging on the original mind, or undergo some sort of chaotic divergence.

      Of course, if the mind is truly algorithmic, then perhaps the above could be avoided by modelling it on a sufficiently powerful computer, but, of course, this (and the preceding example) would be a copy of the mind, rather than a transfer from one place to another.
      I sort of touched on this in my book CAPACITY, when Helen was trapped in a processing space that was losing power and Judy was attempting to serialize her mind in order to get her out of there.

      This was part of the thinking behind TWISTED METAL. In that world, the robots’ minds cannot be copied or transferred- a deliberate contrast to the prevailing mood in other contemporary SF.

  2. Dr Mohammed Ali Khan says:

    Even if someone can create an exact copy of my brain.. Maybe using quantum computers.. It would still be my copy. Like my identical twin., It will not be me.. To transfer my mind one should transplant my Central Nervous System.. Because my CNS IS me!

    • It would be your copy, but much much more than your identical twin. At the moment of the copy of you would both be the same, although your experiences would diverge. However, you are right, one of them would be you- the one which would shout out “no!” if a gun was pointed in its direction, and would be slightly less concerned if it was pointed at the copy. (At least, that’s how I’d feel)

  3. Dr Mohammed Ali Khan says:


  4. Stephen says:

    Suppose a “Star Trek”-like “transporter” device could scan both the physical arrangement of the atoms in the body (including the mind) and their motions {though Heisenberg prohibits both at the same time} and could reproduce this at another location to achieve the “transportation” – one could speculate that the scanning process would [necessarily!] destroy the original {makes things a bit easier from a energy and identity conservation point of view} – but has the “consciousness” moved?

    I’ve only read the Penrose series so far – looking forward to the “Book of Robots” and what Emily might find out with her curiosity; and also the other series. BTW who is the source of the chapter page drawings – Rachael’s one was an unexpected surprise!

    The revelation of the time-shift link between Wa-Ka-Mo-Do and Melt POVs means I will have to re-read the existing volumes in this new light before diving into the concluding book when it comes out!

    • Has the conciousness moved? I put forward my own view on that in the Recursion series, although I didn’t destroy the original copy.

      The chapter page drawings were done by Sebastian Winnett: http://www.sebastianwinnett.com/

      Thanks for your comments!

      • Stephen says:

        Ah, I did say I’ve got some reading to do! 😎

        Sadly, Mr. Winnett’s Website Gallery of work is (or seems to be) no longer available, latest news: “The GALLERY is currently undergoing maintenance and is unavailable. 20/06/2011”

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