May 26, 2010

Supertoys Last All Summer Long by Brian Aldiss review time

David is entitled to as much love and care as the family toaster. He is an appliance created for a specific purpose, which is to fill the void in the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Swinton. He cannot think freely or feel emotions any more than a toaster, and no one owes him devotion any more than they owe to a toaster. One might argue that the difference between a toaster and an android is that of artificial intelligence, but an android has no more consciousness of its operations than has a toaster. It is very clear to us that there is no evidence to suggest that a toaster knows that it is heating bread, yet most toasters can adjust the toasting time to avoid burning the second or third piece of bread when it is already hot. This ability to respond to different situations is programmed into the toaster in the same way that certain speech situations and responses are programmed into an android.

The void between semantics and syntax necessitates consciousness for free thought. For example, a math student can learn all of the rules and syntax necessary to manipulate a set of equations describing a certain situation. They can react to variations and fluctuations, but this does not necessarily provide insight into the meaning behind the numbers. The numbers could represent where drops of water from a sprinkler land or at what time the sun will set in a given location at any time of the year, but neither will be conveyed to the student through syntax alone. The student has access to the syntax, but not the semantics, of the math equation. The difference between the student and an android is that a student would be capable of accessing the semantics through independent thought.

Despite appearances, AI is incapable of independent thought.The biggest difference between the actions of a toaster and those of an android are that an android attempts to look and act human. It is deceptive in that they seem to understand what is being said and seem to be able to respond in a humanlike way. However, Aldiss shows that the androids do not really understand what is being said by having the serving bot respond inappropriately. The conversation between the serving bot and Mr. Swinton is awkward and demonstrates that the robot only has a certain number of programmed responses to expected stimuli. It cannot understand Mr. Swinton and invent an appropriate response, nor can it learn from the encounter. It is this inability to think beyond what it is programmed to think and to learn from experience that prohibits the robot from thinking freely.

That said, David is also a machine programmed to react to certain situations without an ability to think freely, to learn, or even to be self-aware. It is just as ludicrous for the Swintons to owe him love as it would be for them to love a computer or a toaster.


  1. An informed and articulate review thanks,i found the distinction between syntax and semantic useful. The writer Ray Bradbury has taken a contrary position on machine intelligence. Read his short story I Sing the Body Electric, which demonstrate his view that machines can store and transmit pure knowledge to humans in a way which mirrors (key word) emotional contact. This theme appears to be emphasied more in the radio play (done by the bbc)

  2. That sounds exciting, I love Ray Bradbury. I'll add I Sing The Body Electric to my immediate reading list.

    Thanks for the comment! I'll get back to you once I've had a look at Bradbury's story.