Non-Fiction Reviews

Talking to Robots
How AI will shape our future

(2019) David Ewing Duncan, Robinson, £16.99, hrdbk, ix + 303pp, ISBN 978-1-472-14290-0


David Ewing Duncan’s collection of short stories/essays on the different aspects of our current society’s technology are fairly high concept for the discerning reader. There is a definite need to make sure you read the prelude, ‘When the Robots Arrived’ to get a sense of the frame Duncan is attempting to introduce in this book – the idea that the different essays are looking backwards at use from a future time where certain technologies have been pushed to an extreme.

That said, the writing of each essay/story is accessible and informative. Duncan is a journalist and the easy style of the editorial or opinion piece is immediately apparent. The topics pull no punches, confronting many of today’s issues with automation and future robot technology, looking at them through an extreme lens, much like many other dystopian narratives. But Duncan is not looking for a cheap shot or an easy way out, instead he discusses the balances of each innovation through the device of his different fictional narrators. Some topics, like ‘The @&#£ Robot that swiped my job!’ are fairly obvious, but ‘Teddy Bear Bot’ and ‘Seχ (Intimacy) Bot’ are much more nuanced.  The former is one of the most interesting stories of the whole collection as it discusses the way in which computers that learned from us could also influence the way we were being brought up.  The idea of young minds being shaped by pre-designed programming that would shift and tailor its dissemination of information, but always be governed by a strategic agenda, sometimes informed by ethics, or not (if hacked and re-programmed to a different agenda) is a frightening concept.  This is also explored from a different direction by Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror (2012- ) in the fourth season episode ‘Arkangel’ as a concerned mother finds a way to edit out graphic content from her daughter’s perception, but then finds by doing so, this means her child has grown up with no concept of danger.  Ultimately, both Duncan and Brooker’s narratives highlight the issue of control and the rights of the individual but leaving you with a sour taste of what might be to come.

‘Seχ (Intimacy) Bot’ explores the depersonalisation of recreational seχ through increasingly sophisticated machines. However, Duncan navigates this subject carefully to highlight the real reason behind recreational seχ – the desire for intimacy.  In the guise of his pseudo future narrator, Duncan narrates the (future) history stages of robot technology designed to fulfil the physical desires of humans and how these emulation/simulation machines were continually battling between the requirements of performing a seχual service for their owner and of being valued by their owner, with the ultimate solution suggested to be the replacement of the robot with a human being.

Talking to Robots  is an interesting anthology of stories/essays that debate a set of concepts that are familiar to most science fiction readers, but the book does not dwell on the dystopian nature of our technology advancing and of machines replacing us.  Instead, through the fictional framework of its writer, it debates and discusses the technological evolution of its fictional futures, allowing us to reflect and consider each aspect of where we are and where we are going.

Allen Stroud


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