Natural Science Fiction

I recently saw a movie with the following basic plot. A mad physicist has been working on a groundbreaking android, a humanoid robot, in the form of a beautiful young woman. He refers to her as his daughter, and names her “Olympia”. Just as he is putting on the finishing touches, a lovelorn student arrives at his laboratory, and learns of this “daughter”. The student is lonely, and very interested in meeting Olympia, but he catches only a glimpse.

The physicist’s former collaborator, lurking outside the laboratory, bumps into the student, and agrees to sell him a pair of augmented-reality glasses that offer superhuman visual acuity, night-vision, etc. The student starts wearing these glasses around, amazed at his new perception of the world. Unbeknownst to him, the glasses have special features connected to the android, making Olympia appear to be a living human girl. At her debut performance, Olympia sings and dances beautifully, and the student falls in love with her, although the rest of the audience can see the mechanical malfunctions and battery life issues. Eventually, the student dances with Olympia, and confesses his love to her, but her “father” takes her away before he can get a reply.

That night, the physicist and his former collaborator fight over the ownership of Olympia. They cannot agree on who is the rightful owner, and by morning they have destroyed the android rather than share credit for its creation.

The student arrives the next day to propose to Olympia, and is horrified to discover that she has been destroyed, and was never real after all.

You might reasonably complain that this movie seems somewhat derivative. It sounds an awful lot like the plot of Her, or especially Ex Machina, or probably half the episodes of Westworld. It’s practically cliche, except for one thing.

This is not a movie. This is Act I of Les Contes d’Hoffmann, a French opera from 1851. The plot is a slightly simplified but mostly unaltered version of Der Sandmann, an 1816 short story by E. T. A. Hoffmann. (We saw it at the Met, in a grand production featuring Erin Morley as an amazingly robotic Olympia.)

This story is 200 years old. OK, the original libretto doesn’t use the words “android” or “augmented reality”, but how could it? The original libretto is in French!

Today we tell these stories because they are almost plausible. We have early prototypes of all the relevant technologies (humanoid robots, augmented reality glasses, realistic rendering of human faces). We already have hints at the kinds of social problems that might result from young men obsessing with simulated women, rather than actual people.

But this tale is from 1816. ├śrsted had not yet discovered that electricity is related to magnetism. There were no passenger trains, and no trains at all outside of England. The best concrete in the world was still not nearly as good as the Romans’.

Maybe some people are just far-sighted … or maybe there is a trick to predicting the future: focus on flawed human nature. Human nature is unchanging, and technology advances as needed to enable our worst vices and expose our deepest faults.

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