August 22, 2020, would be the 100th birthday of Ray Bradbury, a giant of science fiction. John Scalzi has a lovely essay (well two, the one he wrote as a teenager and the one he just wrote explaining the one he wrote as a teenager) on Bradbury. Bradbury isn’t known for writing about robots, though his classic short story “There Will Come Soft Rains” features a robot house and, of course, there is always the Electric Grandmother from I Sing the Body Electric (a take off on Walt Whitman’s I Sing the Body Electric just like There Will Come Soft Rains was a take off of Sara Teasdale’s poem).
Photo by Alan Light
While Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke were the big three scifi writers of the era, Bradbury always was there in the background. If the big three were 70s music staples like the Eagles, the Beach Boys, and Aerosmith, rockin’ the airwaves with hard science, Bradbury was Simon and Garfunkel, spinning out slower-paced, more lyrical stories. When I teach the AI survey class and get to the section on natural language processing, I have the students read Bradbury’s robot house short story “There Will Come Soft Rains.” The story is one of those that says everything and yet it is all implied. The students, even international non-native English speakers, immediately comprehend that a nuclear attack has occurred and all that is left standing is a single house where a middle class family once lived a good life- even though none of that is explicitly stated. Bradbury relies on us readers sharing what is known in cognitive science as common ground (e.g., we know what families are, we know what comfortable suburban life looks like, we know what nuclear war and fall out would be like, and so on). The precise choice of words give us the clues to interpret the situation. And, at the same time as he is leaving clues as to what happened, Bradbury words the clues such that we readers are overwhelmed by an emotional sense of tragedy once we figure out the impact. Siri and other statistical processors would not be able to handle “There Will Come Soft Rains,” there is just too much commonsense reasoning needed to do more than parse the words.
I have always liked the last story in Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles where the dad takes the kids to see where the real Martians live. Instead of finding a previously undiscovered last surviving Martians, the kids see their reflections in a pool. They get it: Mars is their planet now and they’ve been taught to appreciate its ecology and, with their own version of Heinlein’s Competent Man, will build a new, better society for humankind. I hope that is what all of us will do with Earth.
If you’d like to read more about robot houses (domotics), common ground, and scifi examples of why natural language is so hard for computers, check out: