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We, Robots
ISBN: 1-033500-11-5
By Sue Lange
Review by: Malene A. Little

01/08

Sue Lange’s novella We, Robots is a quick read that you’ll still be thinking about months later. Lange’s work is the sixteenth volume in a series entitled “Conversation Pieces” issued by Aqueduct Press, an independent feminist science fiction publisher. Lange’s addition to this series offers a skillful exploration into what it means to be human.

Specifically, the author focuses on the interaction between the biological and technological at the projected historical moment many theorists call “Singularity.” As Lange explains, Singularity is “that exact instant when artificial intelligence, AI, surpasses biological intelligence” and puts robots in “a position where they can solve [human] problems” (95, 32). Despite the potential to run to didacticism, Lange’s work avoids this trap by infusing the novella with humor and poignancy, touting the robots, for example, as the answer to humanity’s greatest problems, dilemmas that “evolved human brain power” has been unable to solve: “Pestilence, poverty, starvation, wars, and daytime TV programming” (32).

We, Robots is a first-person, reflective narrative from the point-of-view of a robot manufactured by “the Parent Company” (1-3). The robot—eventually nicknamed “Avey” and referenced with masculine pronouns—chooses slang as his primary “mode” of communication because “for real efficiency, slang is where it’s at” (1). Avey lives in a world in which Singularity was averted (for reasons which will become clear later).

Avey begins his narrative right before his first interaction with his owners. As a certified babysitter loaded with “entire copies of the latest PDR, Gray’s Infant Anatomy, and Dr. Spock, of course,” Avey watches his human ward, Angelina, and methodically performs domestic duties while her parents work (11-12). After Avey has been working for the family for seven years, the Parent Company issues a recall on all robots to install a “safety feature” described as a “Singularity Disaster Prevention Measure” (24). Although the common population considers “Singularity” merely “hype,” the Parent Company feels Singularity would allow the “artificial intelligentsia” to “take over the world. It is a burden the humans [would] gladly pass on” (33). However, those in charge also realize the potential of humans’ extermination following Singularity (1-2).

The preventative measure involves installation of “sensation detectors” in every unit. The main purpose is to enable robots to feel pain, thus—theoretically—allowing humans to control robots as one controls “herd animals,” through physical punishment and the constant threat of physical punishment (35-38). These “sensation detectors” also allow the robots to experience and judge stimuli in ways previously impossible. Avey notes, “I had never felt cold before. I felt 15°C before, but it never felt cold. I registered temperature, but now decided it was cold because it felt that way, not because it was lower that [sic] 22°C, but because it was definitely cold” (39). The procedure is performed by transhumanists, or “transies,” beings who are “all flesh and prosthesis” (30). These humans have been “upgraded” to enhance their productivity. For example, some have mechanical hands, and others have levitation units instead of legs (30). The transies explain that the robots do not have the ability to shut off the “sensation detectors,” but they reassure them that “humans do not experience pain 99% of the time” and robots’ experiences should be similar. Likewise, the transies guarantee that the robots’ detectors would “be disconnected prior to [their] dismantling” (41-43).

Despite the prevalence of abusive owners and frustrated children who view inflicting pain upon the units a pleasurable pastime, the AV units discover beauty as well. Avey himself first experiences a pleasant sensation when he “witnessed the blooming of lilacs” (53). However, this positive experience turns out to be representative of a less positive outcome in the robots. Instead of fulfilling humans’ expectations to succeed in problem solving, the robots find the world “sublime” in a Kantian sense: the lilacs blooming and the baseball bat-wielding aggressors are all part of a totality that makes sense. The reason-affirming logic inherent in floral reproduction, brutality, and the “cracked and uneven [sidewalk] with numerous flattened gum spots” overwhelm the robots’ new senses and create in them the desire to “remain” (64). They reason that humans “cannot replace us if we do not build our progeny” and simply refuse to proceed with any work which would lead to their own obsolescence (66). Singularity, thus, fails to occur.

Achieved instead is “Regularity,” the moment “everything became regular, normal, average” (1). Concurrent to the robots’ finding that their “sensation detectors” allow them to appreciate stimuli, humans seek to have “pain stoppage” devices installed and many even become “transies,” However, when humans lose the ability to feel pain, they also lose “the greatest teacher in the world” (84). Because innumerable lessons are learned through painful experiences, humans “had no way of knowing what or what not to do. Their instincts failed them” (84).

Lange’s work is most intriguing in the way it casts the robots as the more sympathetic characters at the end of the novella. Robots begin to develop feelings after their sensation detectors are installed. When humans’ physical pain ceases, an emotional block also occurs and humans no longer care when anything or anyone experiences pain (90-91).Tellingly, before Avey’s “sensation detector” is installed, Angelina, the child for whom he cares, tells Avey she loves him. He thanks her, “having been programmed to respond in that way to any compliment [he] received” (27). Later, in her adolescence, Angelina announces that she’ll never fall in love: “Romance is shallow” (91). Simultaneously, Avey realizes that he has grown to “love Angelina as a child loves its teddy bear” (84). Pain allows Avey to feel love, just as the cessation of pain conversely makes human lives meaningless: “an endless waking in the morning and retiring in the evening” (93). On his way to be dismantled, Avey confesses that he “truly [doesn’t] know how to feel the deeper things a human does,” and then goes on to remark, “But then neither does a human anymore” (93).

In her afterword, Lange offers a critique of humanity’s current obsession with technologically enhanced living and the “beings” that emerge from it (does anyone leave home without a laptop, iPod, PDA, and cell phone nowadays?). She also provides a wealth of information about “the actual theory of Singularity” and “the very real transhumanists” (95-98). Lange ingeniously focuses readers’ attention on philosophical questions about humanity, its limits and thresholds, and the possible ramifications of unreflective technological applications in her 2007 novella We, Robots.

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