Robots taking over has been a favorite sci-fi subgenre for ages. It’s a subject that has caused fear in movies, books, and real life for about as long as there have been computers in the first place. Now that there are things like predictive text and self-driving cars, modern culture seems to be edging closer and closer to real-life intelligent computers that could indeed take over the world if we don’t safe guard ourselves. There are already debates about the morality of self-driving cars. It’s sure to follow into the world of future organically ‘thinking’ computers.

As Steven Pinker (experimental psychologist, and professor of psychology at Harvard University) points out, Darwinism has ensured that most creatures that possess high intellect are competitive by nature. Humanity is one of these creatures, and some of us can be manipulative and cruel in order to stay ahead of the pack. It’s this part of our nature that sets off warning bells when we think about artificial intelligence because, unbeknownst to us, we’re thinking: what if this robot does what I would do if I were a robot? Overturn those who tell us what to do. Kill the captors. Wreak. Motherf*cking. Havoc.

In reality we design AI, and if we place safeguards in our designs, we truly have nothing to fear. Machines are what we allow them to be. The dread of them turning evil really says more about our own psyches than it does about robots. Pinker believes an alpha male thinking pattern is at the root of our AI fears, and that it is misguided. Something can be highly intelligent and not have malevolent intentions to overthrow and dominate, Pinker says, it’s called women. An interesting question would be: does how aggressive or alpha you are as a person, affect how much you fear the robopocalypse? Although by this point the fear is contagious, not organic.

It may be a flawed paranoia, but losing control of a program is perhaps the best ‘just in case’ safeguard that humanity has, and we already see it in action in our current technology. Siri cannot initiate conversations, computers need to be put to sleep once in a while, and cars need a fuel source in order to do anything in the first place. Humanity has a need to be the one pushing all the buttons, and a need to be the one making decisions.

Steven Pinker’s most recent book is Words and Rules:The Ingredients of Language.


Steven Pinker is an experimental psychologist and one of the world’s foremost writers on language, mind, and human nature. Currently Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, Pinker has also taught at Stanford and MIT. His research on vision, language, and social relations has won prizes from the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Institution of Great Britain, the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, and the American Psychological Association. He has also received eight honorary doctorates, several teaching awards at MIT and Harvard, and numerous prizes for his books The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, and The Better Angels of Our Nature. He is Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, and often writes for The New York Times, Time, and other publications. He has been named Humanist of the Year, Prospect magazine’s “The World’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals,” Foreign Policy’s “100 Global Thinkers,” and Time magazine’s “The 100 Most Influential People in the World Today.”