Sunday July 24, 2016

If robots had free will, should we treat them like humans?

From the cover of "The Mechanical" by Ian Tregillis

From the cover of "The Mechanical" by Ian Tregillis

Listen 22:06

Ian Tregillis is a physicist and a novelist. His book The Mechanical is a science fiction page-turner with a steam-punk flavour, but the steam is replaced with clockwork gears. As the story unfolds, the mechanical robots in his book begin to develop free will, which leaves readers with an unsettling question - should the robots be treated like humans?

"Are the Clakkers just very sophisticated machines?" Tregillis asks. "Are they pocket watches that are perpetually wound by magic and, therefore, not really people? Or are they thinking, feeling beings that are just in a really terrible situation?" 

Philosophical ideas about free will run through the novel. While the setting is fictional, the questions have more and more weight in a world where robots are an ever-growing presence in our lives. 

Some people worry that emdowing mechanicals with a human identity is degrading to real-life human beings. Tregillis begs to differ: "I think the notion of human dignity would have to be extremely fragile or brittle for it to be impugned by something like that." He argues developing robots that are more easily associable - for use in home care settings, for instance - doesn't threaten human dignity at all: "Instead of lowering people, it's sort of raising our machines a little bit."

The Mechanical has been described as "addictively brilliant". Tapestry host Mary Hynes was certainly hooked. Click on the link at the bottom of this page to read all of Chapter One.

The second book in the series, The Rising, is due to hit book stands in December.

Excerpt from "The Mechanical" by Ian Tregillis

It was the first public execution in several years, and thus, despite the cold drizzle, a rather unwieldy crowd thronged the open spaces of the Binnenhof. The rain pattered softly on umbrellas and awnings, trickled beneath silken collars, licked at the mosaicked paving tiles of Huygens Square, and played a soft tattoo — ping, ping, ting — from the brassy carapaces of the Clakkers standing in perfect mechanical unity atop the scaffold.

It whispered beneath the shuffling agitation of the human crowd and, as always here in The Hague, the quiet tick-ticktocking of clockwork servitors standing to attend the more well-heeled citizens. The drizzle sounded a quiet counterpoint to the ceaseless clanking and clacking of the mechanical men who ever trotted to and fro on the Empire's business.

Mechanicals like Jax, who detoured through the Binnenhof while running an errand for his human masters.

Rumor had it that in addition to a quartet of Papist spies, the doomed accused also included a rogue Clakker. No mechanical in the city would willingly miss this. Just in case the rumors were true.

Read Chapter One of The Mechanical. Copyright © 2015 by Ian Tregillis. All rights reserved.