Drawing inspiration from Superman and robots - Ian McMillan

Years ago, when I used to read and collect Superman comics, there was one particular story that stayed with me and still pops up in the back burner of my mind, like it did recently.

There are new opportunities for robots both in fiction and reality, says Ian.

In the story, Superman had been replicated into dozens, if not hundreds, of Superman robots who, in theory, could go out and do good work rescuing people from burning buildings and runaway trains while Superman sat with his feet up doing the crossword in the Daily Planet, occasionally pressing a button on a keyboard to instruct the robot what to do.

The reason I remembered these Super-robots was twofold; at the bottom of a box in the loft, we’d found my old toy robot that I bought on a family holiday in Llandudno in 1964 and, amazingly, still worked when we put some batteries in, and then secondly, I realised what a practical help a robot could be when I knew I had to buy some bread but I also had some writing to finish.

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In a perfect (or imperfect, you decide) world, I could just send my Ian McMillan robot up to the shop while I polished the gleaming sentences until they almost set fire to the page.

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As I turned on the old toy robot and watched it whizz geriatrically across the floor, its lights flashing like a tiny disco, I reflected on the hold that robots had on children in the 1960s, growing up to believe that human progress was inevitable and that by the time we were grown up, robots would do every task that we didn’t want to do to give us more time to zoom around Barnsley in our hover-slippers.

In the comics and science fiction books I read, the robot was either the saviour of mankind or had come along to replace it.

There were robots with menacing eyes and metallic voices and there were robots who, in cheap black and white films, looked like us until one of their valves exploded and then, in a wry tragicomic moment, one of their arms fell off.

In my early attempts at writing, I populated my stories with this brand of robot trope but, in the end, even at a young age I realised that a robot could really do only one of two things when you boiled down all the plot possibilities: it could save the universe or it could destroy the universe. And maybe that’s why, as I got older I fell out of love with robots and my Llandudno robot got consigned to the shed.

Now, though, there are new opportunities for the robot in fiction and reality. Artificial intelligence can give us robots that might, one day, be able to write this column.

In fact, I’ll just wire my trusty and rusty Llandudnobot into the keyboard I’m writing on and let it have a go…

I am a robot from Llandudno and this is my column. I am a robot from Llandudno and this is my. I am. I am.

Ah well: back to the drawing board.