Sunday, December 18, 2011

Robots, Androids, and the Ship's Computer

wherein your humble host continues his cover-to-cover analysis of Metamorphosis Alpha

Starting on page 6, there is a section called “Ship Devices and Units.” Most of the section is devoted to descriptions of equipment; however, there are also details about the ship's features and not all of those details are intuitively organized. For example, the presence of an artificial moon and stars for “natural areas” is incongruously indicated under the description of “City Units.” The term “unit” is rather vague and the rules use it in a variety of contexts throughout the section. First, 'unit' refers to a dwelling unit. The artificial gravity generators are also described as units. A unit can be a portable device (such as the 'Engineering System Hand Unit') and, apparently, it can be a robot (or at least a robotic drone). The next section (page 7), “Starship Equipment,” provides details about robots (occasionally referring to them as units), but the “Ship Devices and Units” section provides details on the 'Ecology Energy Tracer Unit' and the 'Security Tracer Unit.' The Security Tracer Unit includes yet another unit – a propulsion unit. (This might make a decent drinking game. Maybe Jim Ward was getting paid 'by the unit.') Given that they have means of propulsion, the tracer units are not hand tools. The Ecology Energy Tracer Unit can summon a forest robot; this suggests that it is a robot. A drone would not summon a robot, a drone operator would.

The “Starship Equipment” section begins with the sentence, “Here is a listing of the various features and equipment on board the starship.” This introductory statement more accurately describes the previous section. Regardless, the “Starship Equipment” section has a “Weapons Systems” sub-section; otherwise, the section is devoted to describing the various robot models – along with brief entries regarding anti-grav sleds and androids. This section describes six models of robots: (1) standard general purpose, (2) ecology “forest,” (3) ecology “garden,” (4) medical, (5) engineering, and (6) security. Each model is described as an outline list of equipment; each item is identified by a capital letter. This wouldn't be so bad if the lists were uniform; for instance, if Item 'F' for each model referred to the robot's propulsion. As it is, each model is a haphazard list that is not consistently organized. For example, the security robot has a gas pellet ejector (Item 'E') and two slug ejectors (Item 'J'); the gas pellet ammunition is not a separate item, but the slug ejector ammunition is (Item 'K'). All in all, the robot descriptions in Gamma World would be more consistently organized and take up less relative space.

As I pointed out before, robots are subject to the vocal commands of anyone with an appropriate color band. They also have standard programming. Some robots possess “independent action circuits,” implying some sort of artificial intelligence. Page 8 states that “robots will never kill any type of life – this program is implanted in all primary logic circuits.” Ecology robots are equipped with herbicides and insecticides so, clearly, this is a misstatement; perhaps robots will never kill any type of animal life. The special note on robots concludes with:
Robots are programmed to assist humans, and they will react to the harming of life with immediate force (but to subdue rather than kill) – even if the aggressor is wearing a command color band.
All this suggests implementation of some variation of Asimov's Laws of Robotics.

While the description of the robot models is about equal to an entire page, the discussion of androids consumes less than one-quarter of a page. Androids are vat-grown chemical life. How are they perceived by robots? For robotic purposes, are they human? The 'Security Hand Unit' described on page 6 can differentiate between the energy reading of a human and an android, so it is likely that robotic sensors can also detect the difference. Are androids “second rate” humans; to be served and defended as long as real humans are not inconvenienced? Do androids have priority over 'natural' animal life or does their status as constructs mean they are less important?

According to page 8, “Each android is designed so that when it is almost at the end of its life expectancy it will change color.” Are androids available in a variety of colors? I would think that, given the controversy about androids indicated in the text, androids would have a 'non-human' coloration. Perhaps they start out blue and become violet near their expiration date.

Also on page 8, “All programmed androids are implanted with the idea that to harm or even touch a human in any way is impossible for them.” (Are there any androids that aren't programmed?) This is interesting. A robot can move a human out of harm's way, but an android cannot. A robot can perform a life-saving medical procedure, but an android cannot.

Page 23 devotes a couple of paragraphs to the ship's computer. The computer seems to be quite versatile as an artificial intelligence. According to the “Languages” section on page 24, the computer has learned the common language of the ship and “continually updates its that they will be usable by humans on the ship...” The computer is aware of the problems caused by the radiation catastrophe.
Its program makes it want to help humans on the ship in any way possible – not only to live on the ship but to someday reach a safe planet, even though that is now impossible under the new conditions borne of the radiation disaster.
Why does it have to be impossible? The organizers of the expedition realized the potential for calamitous events. They included a supply of security robots on the ship. Per page 4, they made it possible for the command center to flood any area of the ship with paralysis gas. Certainly, the computer would be programmed with catastrophe protocols or, at the very least, the computer's artificial intelligence could adapt to exigent circumstances. Why can't the computer educate some humans or directly program some androids (an ability indicated on page 8) to reinstate whatever control it lost due to the radiation catastrophe? According to the Introduction on page 3, disaster struck “some one-third of the way to the planetary destination...” Since the Warden had not yet reached the half-way point, perhaps turning back might have been in order.

1 comment:

  1. Hey,
    Way late to the party I know. But I really like this series of MetAl posts. Thanks for them.
    Two things:
    1) Maybe another reason mutants don't get Leadership Potential -- in addition to the thoughts you outlined earlier -- is similar to the way robots can possibly(?) tell the difference between androids and humans. Even if an android looked perfectly human the machines would know it wasn't. Ditto human-like mutants?
    2) I like the idea of androids changing colour Logan's Run-style.