In Ray Bradbury’s classic 1953 short story The Murderer, a man driven beyond distraction by ubiquitous wrist phones, gadgets constantly blaring advertisements and home appliances that talk back to him, decides to smash every device he comes across, leading to his commitment to a psychiatric facility.
Now, 65 years on, this once-imagined future is being rapidly realized with smartphones, smartwatches, virtual assistants (Alexa, Siri, Google Home, etc.), domestic robots and the so-called “Internet of Things,” which will allow all these devices and our home appliances to “speak” to each other.
Terri Favro’s Generation Robot recounts the history of these technologies and explores their potential for reshaping our lives — depending on the extent to which we will accept them.
Acting as a sort of a personal guide to this world, from the anticipations of the 1950s to those of the 2050s, Canadian novelist and lifestyle journalist Favro has assembled an informative, if not entirely satisfying, mix of fact, fiction and popular culture, all of which is mapped onto her actual — and imagined — life story.
Favro is known primarily for her novels, short fiction and graphic novels published by small Canadian presses; her 2017 novel Sputnik’s Children was well-received.
She is, by her own admission, a non-specialist, which likely contributed to her use of an autobiographical conceit: each chapter begins with episodes from her own life as a launching point for discussing the ever-growing presence of technology in our lives.
This approach allows her to share her unique association with robots: in 1968, her engineer father was put in charge of overseeing the world’s first assembly-line robot. However, once her narrative reaches the introduction of desktop computers in the 1980s, her experiences will be familiar to many middle-aged readers.
The fifth chapter and beyond become exercises in science fiction, as she imagines her life with autonomous cars, artificial intelligence (AI) in her appliances and a sex robot joining her family by marriage.
Favro is at her best in the journalistic portions, where we learn from her research and consultations with experts about the tremendous progress underway towards AI and robotic assistants, but which will depend on consumer willingness to use them.
Key to the acceptance of robots is their staying to this side of the so-called “uncanny valley,” beyond which point humanlike features become creepy and off-putting.
Autonomous vehicles promise to drastically reduce traffic fatalities, yet Americans are reluctant to turn over the wheel to them. Meanwhile, a host of robots and other technologies threaten to replace entire classes of professions.
The greatest potential, Favro explains, appears to lie in robot helpers, especially in an era overpopulated by aging baby boomers.
Favro includes numerous sidebars highlighting robots and AI in popular culture; naturally, Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics looms large throughout. Unfortunately, some of these references are either unnecessarily flippant (the revered 1956 film Forbidden Planet is unfairly dismissed as a “campy intergalactic soap opera”) or clumsily inaccurate.
For example, she states that the disfigured crash survivor in Star Trek’s classic pilot episode The Cage is able to maintain the illusion of her beauty by using “advanced alien technology” (it was actually the result of powerfully telepathic aliens), and that the Stormtroopers in the Star Wars prequels are robots (they’re clones, although they do battle a robot army).
Her biggest missed opportunity comes in her chapter on sex robots, when she mentions mechanic Kaylee’s affection for machines in the cult series Firefly; she would have been much better off discussing the sequel film Serenity, in which one of the crew’s allies marries a sex robot.
Generation Robot follows upon a recent surge of books critically examining the social, cultural and political ramifications of digital technologies, AI and algorithms, including Franklin Foer’s World Without Mind, and Who Can You Trust? by Rachel Botsman (both recently reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press).
Unlike Foer and Botsman, however, Favro doesn’t offer any particular argument about these technologies, admitting in her introduction that she has more questions than answers.
As a result, readers of Generation Robot can expect to be informed and entertained, but not necessarily enlightened.
Generation Robot: A Century of Science Fiction, Fact, and Speculation
By Terri Favro
Skyhorse Press. $32.00, 256 pp.
Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press, March 10th 2018.