Victorian scientific romance and robot apocalypse

The 1800s must have been a great time to live. They mark the beginning of many things we take for granted today; most notably democracy, technological and scientific innovation, globalization and international trade. The British Empire was at its height, people started moving with steamships and trains across continents, and inventions like the telegraph and the telephone allowed news to travel faster than ever.

History must have seemed to take a whole new course, unimagined by people who lived only a few years earlier. Writers such as Samuel ButlerH.G. WellsWilliam Morris, and others pondered upon the question of progress, and a new literary genre was created that mixed fantasy, satire and allegory: the scientific romance. A few notable books of this genre are “The Time Machine” (1895) by Wells, “News from Nowhere” (1890) by Morris and “Erewhon” (1872) by Butler.

Samuel Butler

In Erewhon (an anagram of “nowhere”) Butler describes a utopian society that had become industrialized long before Europe and had opted to banish machines. This was because in Erewhon machines were deemed to be dangerous. Butler expanded on the idea in his “Book of Machines” where he claimed that Darwinism applied to machine evolution, and therefore it was inevitable that machines will ultimately develop consciousness. Butler claimed that  “it was the race of the intelligent machines and not the race of men which would be the next step in evolution.” Frank Herbert, the author of “Dune”, as a back-story coined the term “Butlerian jihad” to describe an event 10,000 years before the events of Dune, where thinking machines were outlawed.

Butlerian Jihad

There is a cautionary tale in Victorian scientific romance, something that resonates vividly in our post-industrial age . The 21st century arrived awkwardly  The events of 9/11, as well as the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, colored the first decade of our century with the shades of two unnecessary wars that polarized politics. The economic crises of 2008 and the current crisis in the eurozone have shifted public debate towards a refutation of capitalism.

Whilst all this take place in the forefront of public awareness an immense technological revolution brews quietly in the background. This revolution is all about intelligent machines. They may not have arrived at the level of consciousness yet (but who can really tell?) but they control our planet and our lives already. Our financial and commodity markets, our defense systems, our industries, our infrastructures are all controlled to a greater or lesser degree by autonomous computer programs.

In October 2011 a major military exercise took place across NATO countries in preparation for future cyberwar.  NATO scenarios assumed a cyber attack from a hostile country or terrorist organization. But, what if the “attack” comes as a rebellion of our “mechanical slaves”?  How could we tell the difference?  And what could we possibly do to defend ourselves then?

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