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

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)