Duality, Materialism and Why People Like Robots

January 14, 2010

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)