top of page

Bittersweet lessons about human-robot interaction and ethics- The Silver Metal Lover

The Silver Metal Lover, the 1981 cult-favorite scifi book by Tanith Lee, is surprisingly realistic about robots, artificial intelligence, and human-robot interaction- and why a society might recall or prohibit humanoid robots. Plus it identifies four legal and ethical issues that remain unaddressed. The Silver Metal Lover ends on a bittersweet note for the protagonists, and for scientists, the lack of visible progress on human-robot interaction and ethical issues over the past 40 years is bittersweet as well. You can buy it here.

If you want to learn more about human-robot interaction see:

The plot is simple: When a rich, immature teenager runs off with a robot programmed to be the perfect companion, she discovers that she has been programmed by her mother and society. Together, both the robot and the girl transcend their software and cultural programming through a bittersweet romance.

The title, The Silver Metal Lover, made me fear was that it was going to be trite romance genre writing with some robosexual eroticism thrown in. What makes the book a classic is its failure “to stay in its lane.” It starts out as a young adult novel, where a teenager with an overbearing mother has to navigate unpleasant social situations with an array of rich, louche friends (including one who identifies as non-binary and has a constant parade of gay lovers, quite prescient for 1980s). Midway it becomes a romance novel, as the great sex with a silver-colored robot musician matures into

Princess Bride true love. By the end, it is a political commentary. And throughout, the book incorporates enough speculation on robots, both in terms of how they work and how society will use and react to them, to qualify as scifi.

And the scifi part is interesting, especially the human-robot interaction aspect.

The science of the robot is not too far off, despite the references to clockwork mechanisms. Perhaps the most realistic aspect is how Silver’s facial expressions goes blank when he encounters something unexpected. If he does not know how to react, he has to think about it and will disengage from whatever conversation or social interaction he was involved in. Understanding complex social situations is hard for us and it is hard for Silver, too. The book also acknowledges that being able to understand social rules is a breakthrough in artificial intelligence; the robot

manufacturer brags how it took years of development.

Another nice element is the discussion of Silver’s creativity and intelligence. As a robot, he has been programmed with the ability to perform and the knowledge of the “rules” of music. The AI breakthrough is its creativity. He follows the rules but is able to combine and fuse multiple genres or execute it in a different style. For example, he takes a popular dance song and performs it with a slower beat and a melancholy delivery changing, and increasing, the song’s emotional impact.

The book is reasonable astute in its discussion of how people many react to robots. One of its strongest ideas is that people will grudgingly accept robots as long as they don’t directly replace people. A protest occurs when it is thought that Silver and his cohort of robots will displace sex workers, as that is one of the few remaining jobs that only humans can perform. Up until that point, robots have taken over menial jobs The potential for larger protests emerges as the elites, who work in the arts, being to fear that robots will replace them as well- the Silver series is musically gifted, one series are brilliant actors, and another are dancers.

The robot manufacturers assume that making robots more human-like is a way to facilitate greater trust and acceptance of robots even as they displace, or replace workers. For example, the company starts putting human-looking heads on the square boxes that were the taxi drivers- sort of the “Johnny Cab” robots from Total Recall. This attempt at social engineering backfires and helps fuel the recall of humanoid robots. If it looks human and is performing even a small portion of a task that a human once did, It is treated as replacing a person. Worse yet, it implies that no one is safe from replacement.

As with anything dealing with human-robot interaction, there are always legal and ethical ramifications. The Silver Metal Lover raises four real world legal and ethical issues.

Liability: Learning means the company can’t really control or predict the outcomes, which interesting from a product liability perspective. What outcomes can the company control or predict? What outcomes should the company be able to control or predict in order to release the robot into service?

Ownership and product recalls: If you recall a robot that has significant machine learning and customization, what happens to all of that learning and customization?

The dangers of ignoring societal context when developing robots: The business model appears to be Robots as Replacement: either making robots replacing a human more human-like (e.g., the robot taxi drivers) or for servants to rich people, ignoring chronic unemployment. A small but vocal protest occurs at the robot factory after the S.I.L.V.E.R, G.O.L.D.E.N, and C.O.P.P.E.R models of robots appear at a festival the night before. Like the party in HBO’s Westworld where investors suddenly discover the other party goers were robots, the manufacturer had put nine robots out as buskers singing, dancing, and declaiming. The party initially went well but the day people began to think about the ramifications- and didn’t like them. This seems fairly obvious, yet the robotics manufacturer had not considered the response.

Does a political entity have the right to recall (not ban) exist robots? The Senate recalls the Silver, Gold, and Copper robots as “unsafe” without any proof, justification, or compensation. The book implies the recall is because the Senate fears a large scale public uprising because citizens will not accept robots replacing humans performing creative endeavors such as acting, composing and performing music, and dance, not just blue collar work.

The Silver Metal Lover is a classic book and should be on every robot aficionado’s list. Although the book has some plot holes and a bit of a slow start, but once it gets going, it is surprisingly good even if you don’t like the romance genre. The book works because of Tanith Lee’s ability to mix the young-adult, romance, scifi, and fantasy genres — that caused her trouble getting books like this published or read despite her numerous awards. The questions it raises about robotics and human-robot interaction resonate more strongly now than they did over 40 years when the book was written.


bottom of page