If We’re Lucky, Robots Might Decide To Keep Us as Pets

Isaac Asimov? Marvin Minsky? Paul Saffo? Edward Fredkin? Bruce Sterling?

Dear Quote Investigator: Reportedly, a top researcher in artificial intelligence once said something like:

Humans will be lucky if superintelligent robots treat them as pets.

At some point a grim elaboration was appended:

If humans are unlucky, they will be treated as food.

Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1970 “LIFE” magazine journalist Brad Darrach wrote an article about Shakey the Robot, an early mobile robot built at the Stanford Research Institute. The primitive device was grandly called the “first electronic person” within the article title. Darrach interviewed Marvin Minsky, a leading researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who was quoted making a startling prediction: 1

In from three to eight years we will have a machine with the general intelligence of an average human being. I mean a machine that will be able to read Shakespeare, grease a car, play office politics, tell a joke, have a fight. At that point the machine will begin to educate itself with fantastic speed. In a few months it will be at genius level and a few months after that its powers will be incalculable.

Minsky and a colleague warned that intelligent computers should not be put in control of indispensable systems; instead, they must be carefully controlled. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:

The problem of computer control will have to be solved, Minsky and Papert believe, before computers are put in charge of systems essential to society’s survival. If a computer directing the nation’s economy or its nuclear defenses ever rated its own efficiency above its ethical obligation, it could destroy man’s social order—or destroy man. “Once the computers got control,” says Minsky, “we might never get it back. We would survive at their sufferance. If we’re lucky, they might decide to keep us as pets.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order including a 1985 passage asserting that Minsky denied making the statement about pets.



In 1977 the famous science fiction author Isaac Asimov wrote a short essay for the in-flight magazine of American Airlines. 2 The piece was reprinted in the collection “Robot Visions”. Asimov’s essay included an instance of the saying: 3

But if computers become more intelligent than human beings, might they not replace us? Well, shouldn’t they? They may be as kind as they are intelligent and just let us dwindle by attrition. They might keep some of us as pets, or on reservations.

Then too, consider what we’re doing to ourselves right now—to all living things and to the very planet we live on. Maybe it is time we were replaced.

In 1983 the BBC broadcast a documentary titled “Better Mind the Computer” that was part of the Horizon series. A researcher at MIT named Edward Fredkin suggested that it was unlikely superintelligent machines would remain subordinate to humans: 4

As these machines evolve and as some intelligent machines design others, and they get to be smarter and smarter, it gets to be fairly difficult to imagine how you can have a machine that’s millions of times smarter than the smartest person and yet is really our slave doing what we want.

Fredkin also made a remark about the fate of humans:

. . . I think that the artificial intelligences of the future will be worried about weighty problems that we simply can’t understand, and they may condescend to talk to us. They may amuse us on occasion or play games that we like to play, and in some sense they might keep us as pets.

The 1985 book “Into the Heart of the Mind: An American Quest for Artificial Intelligence” by Frank Rose described research conducted at the University of California, Berkeley. The quotation from “LIFE” was reprinted together with a claim that Minsky had disputed the ascription: 5

In fact, it was all Shakey could do to keep from running into walls. But that didn’t deter the reporter, who imagined a computer take-over in the not-too-distant future and quoted MIT’s Marvin Minsky as saying, “If we’re lucky, they might decide to keep us as pets”—a remark Minsky has denied ever making.

In 1994 University of Oxford physicist Roger Penrose published “Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness” which credited Fredkin with the saying: 6

If the computer-guided robots turn out to be our superiors in every respect, then will they not find that they can run the world better without the need of us at all? Humanity itself will then have become obsolete. Perhaps, if we are lucky, they might keep us as pets, as Edward Fredkin once said . . .

In 2006 futurist Paul Saffo presented on his blog an extended version of the saying, but he was uncertain who coined it: 7

One of the cleverest observations I have heard about a future of intelligent robots is that “.. if we are lucky, they will treat us as pets, and if we are very unlucky, they will treat us as food.”

Or, rather, I thought I heard. I thought that credit for this goes to brilliant author and future-gazer Bruce Sterling, but Bruce doesn’t recall saying it, and now I am not so sure where it came from, and now a friend claims that I coined it.

In 2009 an article from the McClatchy News Service ascribed the extended saying to Saffo: 8

“We’re in a slow retreat in the face of the steady advance of our mind’s children,” agreed Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif. “Eventually, we’re going to reach the point where everybody’s going to say, ‘Of course machines are smarter than we are.'”

“The truly interesting question is what happens after if we have truly intelligent robots,” Saffo said. “If we’re very lucky, they’ll treat us as pets. If not, they’ll treat us as food.”

In conclusion, the 1970 “LIFE” article popularized the phrase. Marvin Minsky received credit, but apparently he disclaimed it. In 1977 Isaac Asimov penned an essay containing a similar remark. Edward Fredkin made a comparable remark on camera in a 1983 BBC documentary. Paul Saffo employed an extended version in 2006.

Image Notes: Robot with pet dog robot from kellepics at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to anonymous AI researcher whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Update History: On June 24, 2017 the “Robot Visions” citation was added to replace a later citation.

Notes:

  1. 1970 November 20, LIFE, Meet Shaky, the first electronic person: The fascinating and fearsome reality of a machine with a mind of its own by Brad Darrach, Start Page 58B, Quote Page 58D, 66, and 68, Time Inc., New York. (Google Books Full View)
  2. Website: Isaac Asimov Home Page, Article title: Essays by Isaac Asimov about intelligence, Compiled by: Edward Seiler and Richard Hatcher, Date on website for compilation: 1995, Information: The website says the original title of “Our Intelligent Tools” was “Moral Machines”, and it appeared in the October 1977 issue of American Way (In-flight magazine of American Airlines), Website description: Comprehensive collection of resources pertaining to Isaac Asimov. (Accessed asimovonline.com on June 24, 2017) link
  3. 1990 Copyright, Robot Visions by Isaac Asimov, Our Intelligent Tools, (First Published in 1977 in American Airlines In-Flight Magazine, original title was different), Start Page 420, Quote Page 421, A Byron Priess Visual Publications: ROC Imprint of Penguin Books, New York. (Verified with hardcopy in Robot Visions)
  4. YouTube video, Title: BBC Horizon – 1983 – Better Mind the Computer – 3 of 4, Uploaded on Mar 9, 2012, Uploaded by: ifoundthatvideo, (Quotation starts at 9 minute 5 seconds of 12 minutes 24 seconds) (This video excerpt is from a 1983 BBC Horizon documentary titled “Better Mind the Computer”), (Accessed on youtube.com on June 20, 2017) link
  5. 1985 (1984 Copyright), Into the Heart of the Mind: An American Quest for Artificial Intelligence by Frank Rose, Quote Page 171, Vintage Books: A Division of Random House, New York. (Google Books Preview)
  6. 1994, Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness by Roger Penrose, Section 1.2: Can robots save this troubled world?, Quote Page 11, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England. (Google Books Preview)
  7. Website: Paul Saffo, Article title: Robots: will we become their pets — or their food…, Article author: Paul Saffo, Date on website: August 14, 2006, Website description: Website operated by consultant Paul Saffo, (Accessed saffo.com on June 21, 2017) link (Wayback Machine snapshot dated June 25 3013) link
  8. 2009 April 20, The Sun News, Robots are narrowing the gap with humans, Author/Byline: Robert S. Boyd (McClatchy Newspapers Washington Bureau), McClatchy Washington Bureau, Washington D.C. (NewsBank Access World News)