Our computer overlords may not save us

Explore the inevitable inanity of Homo Sapiens in Anderson's sci-fi story collection.

Explore the inevitable inanity of Homo Sapiens in Anderson’s sci-fi story collection.

Review: Epic Robot Fail

Illustrated short story collection

Jake Anderson, 69 pages

Epic Robot Fail is a collection of four tales based in Los Angeles in 2084 at a time when artificial intelligence begins to supersede human intelligence. As a result, machines also begin to supersede human social status, a fact that quickly challenges many aspects of American life, including civil rights, work, play, relationships, and the meaning of existence itself.

Jake Anderson portrays this clash of absurdity and inevitability in such a succinct and amusing way that it is easy to sympathize with humans, for all their faults and imperfections, doomed to become obsolete within the very technocracy they are responsible for creating.

“Harold the House” focuses on a lowly bureaucrat who identifies himself as part of the ‘transhumanist’ minority population. He sees himself as neither human nor sentient, but a combination of both person and machine, and he therefore earns the ire of both groups as he fumbles his way through his job and odd romantic relationship with his home.

“Long-Awaited AI Directed Horror Film Full of Zombie Cliches” is a story presented as a movie review about a film directed by a machine and includes the peculiar ups, downs and back story one might expect from such a brazen debut.

It is a well-written and creative read, in my opinion, previously featured in The La-La Lander.

“Machine Wash Warm” involves a man trying to get over a break-up, but reminded of his ex from the panties he discovers after their split lingering in his laundry machine — which turns out to be a spy, and the panties a ploy by a marketing firm to monitor the man’s response.

The story is being made into a film that is in post-production at the time of this writing, and I look forward to seeing how the visual nuances of this tale are managed on-screen.

Finally, “AutoPhil” relates how one lad is happy to be among a handful of humans in his neighborhood hired and gainfully employed amid the spiraling economy. His job is to spew columns of iconic information into a vast AI-computer system — a task better suited for a robot, he soon realizes — from which unfolds the crux of the tale.

Illustration for "AutoPhil," one of the stories in Epic Robot Fail.

Illustration for “AutoPhil,” one of the stories in Epic Robot Fail.

While I greatly enjoyed reading Epic Robot Fail, it some ways presents an incomplete world, leaving me wanting more. Even so, the collection begs the question, has humankind always been destined for the trite slavery it slips into by 2084?

The answer, brief and implied, is ‘yes,’ and the collection’s message has as much to do with our present predicament as it does the events imagined several decades into the future.

For example, human employees in the current workplace often struggle with their human bosses because of the unequal power dynamic that exists between them. This struggle might reveal itself as envy, control or hate, but is often found in some form or other in our factories and office spaces.

In Anderson’s stories, the same power dynamic holds true of human employees and their machine masters, with one notable difference. The human employees portrayed in Epic Robot Fail have a greater sense of resignation about their fate than today’s working stiffs. After all, it is difficult for a human employee to begrudge a machine superior to him or her in every way. The only issue in such a world, perhaps, is how people allowed themselves to become outdated slaves in the first place.

The answer, of course, is that they already have.

That’s because Epic Robot Fail seems in retrospect to be as much a call to action against the top-down constraints humans face within the current socioeconomic system, as it is a call to action against the top-down constraints the author imagines machines will someday force upon the rest of us.

It seems to be an unlikely coincidence that Epic Robot Fail takes place in 2084, one hundred years following 1984 and similar in scope to that totalitarian tale. Common expressions heard in the modern cut-throat workplace, reminders such as it is ‘nothing personal’ or ‘business as usual’ when someone loses a job that’s been outsourced overseas — or worse yet, to a robot – shows in some ways how impersonal, un-businesslike and flat-out wrong our world has become.

And yet if Epic Robot Fail is any indication, the state of affairs for humans stands to get worse before it gets better. It’s almost as if the fate of humankind is already out of its own hands, being dictated by some ambivalent socioeconomic system, or ‘machine,’ already in place.

The big question I had when I finished reading Epic Robot Fail, what might people do between now and 2084 to make their system more humane?

Ryan Hyatt, May 9, 2016

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