In the realm of science fiction, our fear of automatons is rampant as we expect the robot to turn against us, ironically, in search of its own humanity.
An early example is HAL, the spacecraft computer program that decides to kill the astronaut. Star Trek’s V-Ger has a similar theme, as does Metropolis, and then there are the Daleks, which roll around chanting “Exterminate! Exterminate!” Asimov’s I, Robot explores what happens when an AI tries to protect itself, mirrored in the Terminator series. The Borg are the quintessential of the evil of computer-robots that co-opt humanoid species as the android cogs of the collective.
This is the primary trope of the Matrix, where the robot is the computer program, and Neo is literally up against the Programmer. Digital natives, those who have never lived in a world without the InnerWebz, can’t understand why someone would be afraid of a computer.
Even the science fiction that is on the robot’s side show the desire of the puppet to be a real boy: Asimov’s robot detective R. Daneel, TV’s Rhoda the Robot (played by the statuesque Julie Newmar), and Data, the android from Star Trek TNG. The only two happy ’droids ( not the examples I’m looking for) are C3PO and R2D3, who function more like the comic relief odd couple than robots. They have made peace with their “droidicity” (?).
Where does this fear of robots come from, so similar to the creepy feeling we get around clowns and ventriloquist dummies (Barbie and Ken?), and how does it fit into the need we have to make sense of our lives by setting up systems?
Systems are a form of programming, a way to make routine to allow us to get mundane tasks completed without much thought—much like programming a robot.
Our brains have three levels operation. The so-called reptile brain, the basal ganglia, functions much like a robot, maintaining life support: breathing, heart rate, digestion, elimination. While the word reptile carries emotional baggage, this part of the brain is present in all vertebrates. A middle section of the brain manages emotional chemistry, and the top brain, the neo-cortex, is where conscious thinking is processes.
What makes us afraid of the robot? It’s actually more the other way around. The robot is afraid of the neocortex, because it makes life-threatening decisions (a.k.a. courage, altruism, selflessness). When we are faced with something that produces stress, whether physical danger or mental stress, the robot brain shuts off the body’s access to the top brain, reserving In moments of physical danger, it’s important for the survival of the body for the basal ganglia to shut down all non-critical processes and divert resources to critical ones—breathing, muscles, senses. Digestion and philosophy can wait for safer times.
Living in our busy world, it’s easy to be stressed all the time, leaving us with less access to our top brain. We are like robots, going through our day on automatic pilot, easily distracted and wondering how to manage. We make systems to help us negotiate our world, and we get upset if something disrupts the routine or gets us off schedule. But here’s the kicker, the thing that drives the Pinocchio story: The robot brain is afraid of the upper brain. Mr. Smith is afraid of Neo because he can overcome the Matrix by controlling his thoughts. The robot brain does not want to let go of the controls, because it is protecting the body. It is not concerned with the personality or self-actualization. It is fueled by the middle brain, where the emotions are generated, to keep its robotic fingers on the game controller.
This is why every type of coaching, therapy, spiritual practice and just about any other type of self-improvement has to do with finding out how to stay focused in the upper brain, where we have access to much more thinking power. Making those kinds of changes requires a new system, breaking us out of our automatic pilot activities driven by the robot brain and fueled by pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding emotions. Resistance from the inner BORG is very effective, where the actions of the top brain are futile against the fear and anger response.
Taking the time to learn how to be a competent programmer of one’s own life is well worth the effort. Writing affirmations, building dream boards, and other ways of building new neural pathways for uplifting and creative thought is completely outside the realm of the robot brain. But a robot can only accomplish what it is programmed to do. New behaviors require new programming. New programming needs a system, which literally reprograms the robot brain.
Only when we are able to rise to the higher brain functions, by reducing stress and taking charge of our lives, will we achieve the self-actualization that is the highest level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Will you be a robot or will you be your own programmer?