Autonomous (2017): A robot provides a teachable moment about natural language understanding as it di
What it gets right about robotics: the complexities of computer vision and natural language communication.
Recommended reading: don’t let the reviews about robot sex make you think this is a fembot soft porn novel; it’s a thoughtful book about humans and robots (mostly from Canada) engaged in a cat-and-mouse search for the answer to a Big Pharma drug epidemic.
Autonomous, the ambitious book by Annalee Newitz, has enough Big Ideas to stock several books: Big Pharma, intellectual property patents, internationalization of the industrial military pharma complex, socio-economic inequality, climate change, robots earning autonomy through indentured servitude, the distortion of independent research by industry funding, and so on. Robot sex may not even be the biggest Big Idea, though it is one of the thought-provoking ways in which the book contrasts the similarities and differences between biological and artificial agents. And when that robot sex is based on subtle, intimate communication between partners rather than a HBO Westworld sexbot promiscuous-sex-in-a-consequence-free-environment binge, it becomes a moving illustration of the very real challenge of natural language understanding between autonomous agents.
The book is the story of two different protagonists. One is Jack, a “pirate” who once was a researcher but now spends her days reverse engineering medicines that are too expensive for average people to afford. The other is Paladin, a military grade robot with an overall humanoid shape that is distorted with wings, carapaces, and other alterations to make her a super soldier. Paladin, along with her human partner Eliasz, is sent to assassinate Jack for intellectual property violations. They are unaware that the real motivation for Jack’s termination is that she has stumbled upon a major violation by one of the Big Pharma companies.
Robot sex in the Autonomous universe avoids the prurient sexbot motif and instead the robot sex subplot serves as one of the many mechanisms exploring what it means to be autonomous. Jack, as an un-indentured and truly free human, engages in sex with her human co-workers and fellow travelers but chooses to avoid intimacy with her partners. Meanwhile, Paladin, as an indentured worker, explores sex as an assertion of her autonomy to choose something beyond that which she was pre-programmed for.
One of the few choices permitted to Paladin is what she wants to be called. The genderless Paladin starts out preferring to be called “he”, seemingly appropriate for a military robot, but then asks to be called “she” to ease Eliasz’ homophobia. This mid-book change in the gender of a genderless character echoes Ancillary Justice. In Ancillary Justice, the inability of the reader to pin down the sex of the Breq (or pretty much any character) is a reminder of just how much we are unconsciously focused on gender. In Autonomous, the gender fluidity is more unsettling and discomfiting than the robot sex.
Regardless of gender label, Paladin treasures sex as a means to gain greater intimacy with Eliasz and ultimately she defines autonomy as the right to privacy (especially valuable when you’re a robot and people with the right clearances can literally see what you think). Similar to R.U.R, the original play that created the term robot, the robots in Autonomous appear to be purer, sweeter creatures than the shallow, work-obsessed, hard-partying humans.
How Paladin achieves her intimacy with Eliasz illustrates the challenges of natural language understanding and communication in human-robot interaction. Interpreting human communication is more than parsing and understanding the words the person is saying; Siri, Alexa, and autospell are daily reminders of the difficulties. True communication involves the conversationalists having a fundamental common ground, that is, a shared background of understanding about the world and the subject they are talking about. Common ground is how we are able to take shortcuts; for example, I might say “Autonomous is nominated for a Nebula Award” and you, understanding that the Nebulas are awarded at the WorldCon and that WorldCon 2018 is in Pittsburgh, might respond with “Are you going to Pittsburgh?” Our common ground about the Nebulas made the two seemingly unrelated sentences comprehensible.
But there is more to communication than common ground and here is where Autonomous is especially accurate. The book highlights the many other attributes of the communication that an agent- human or robot- needs to understand in order infer what researchers call a mental model of the other’s beliefs, desires, and intentions (BDI). One attribute of communication is being able to recognize the person, or agent, that you are conversing with. Additional attributes include non-verbal cues, such as prosody, pacing, inflection, facial expressions (smiling, frowning, looking confused), head nods, gazing up at a conversational partner to indicate turn taking in a conversation, looking at the object being discussed, proximity to the conversational partner (personal space), the way the hands are moving, the general pose (the rigid stiffness of anger or discomfort), and so on.
For both the robots in Autonomous and for real robots, recognizing these cues is very hard; indeed, recognizing faces is still hard. We do it naturally with our visual system but computer vision for robots is far from a solved problem, despite the hype about deep learning. The solution for Paladin is to be given a human brain. After all, the neural circuits in the visual processing portions of the human brain have been honed by evolution to detect these nuances. And so, Paladin as a top-of-the-line military special ops robots is given the brain of a deceased human soldier so that she can use the visual neural circuitry. Without a human brain, other robots have to resort to pose analysis, voice stress analysis and other tricks currently employed by actual, real world robots to infer the emotional state of their conversational partner. Giving a robot a brain doesn’t make the robot smarter, like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, it is the gift of sight.
Autonomous excels in reminding us of the wonders of our brain and visual processing. And in the difference between love and sex--- and freedom and privacy.