You will work! You will build for us! You will serve us!
Robots of the world, the power of man has fallen.
A new world has arisen, the rule of the Robots,
R.U.R., Karel Čapek
These are lines from Karel Čapek’s 1920 play R.U.R: Rossum’s Universal Robots, the work which gives us the word “robot”. The word comes from the Czech word for worker, but with a sense closer to forced labour or slavery.
R.U.R. is set in a future in which emotionless human-like robots have become a cheap and efficient form of labour across the world. As with so many later robot tales, however, their increased sentience quickly leads to problems and they ultimately revolt against their human creators.
So, from the very first use of the word robot there are tensions and contrasts between the miraculous technological advancement the robots embody, and fundamental issues of freedom and slavery and what it is to be human.
These are tensions, explored in this episode, that have only increased in the decades since Čapek’s play, both in the field of robotics as well as in fiction and popular culture.
To help me explore all of this I chatted to a roboticist who also writes about literature, and a literature professor who has worked and published extensively on robotics.
Dr Robin Murphy is a Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at Texas A&M University. She is Director of the Humanitarian Robotics and AI Laboratory, co-founder of the field of disaster robotics, and founder of Roboticists Without Borders.
Her TED talk on disaster robotics has been viewed over a million times and can be seen at TED.com here
Dr Teresa Heffernan is a Professor in the Department of English language and literature at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, in Nova Scotia, Canada. She has published extensively on robotics and AI in fiction, including her current funded research project: “Where Science Meets Fiction: Social Robots and the Ethical Imagination.”
Her latest publication, an edited collection Cyborg Futures: Cross-disciplinary Perspectives on Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, is available from Palgrave MacMillan here.
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Works Mentioned and Referenced
Karel Čapek: R.U.R.
E.F. Bleiler: Science Fiction: The Early Years
Edward Ellis: The Steam Man of the Plains
Jean-Marie-Mathias-Philippe-Auguste, comte de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam: The Future Eve (L’Eve Future)
Metropolis, dir. Fritz Lang
Isaac Asimov: I, Robot
Philip K. Dick: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Alien, dir. Ridley Scott
Samanta Schweblin: Little Eyes
John Scalzi: Lock In
John Scalzi: Head On
I mentioned transhumanism in this episode. Here’s the full episode on it.
Want some more science fiction? Try this episode on pulp fiction sf
Words To That Effect is a member of the Headstuff Podcast Network. Check out a whole host of great Irish podcasts here
Ep 49: Robots
I’m Conor Reid with Words To That Effect.
Stories of the Fiction That Shapes Popular Culture
You will work! You will build for us! You will serve us!
Robots of the world, the power of man has fallen.
A new world has arisen, the rule of the Robots,
A few years ago I went to a play in Dublin, in the Peacock Theatre, the smaller theatre space in the Abbey, Ireland’s national theatre. The play was RUR, a 1920 work by the Czech writer Karel Capek. Although very successful in its day, it’s not a play that tends to get performed that often anymore, or at least in Ireland anyway – seemingly the last time it was in the Abbey was in May, 1929.
So it’s probably fair to say that your average theatregoer had not heard of RUR or Karel Capek when it was performed here.
You may not have heard of it either. Unless, of course, you’re a science fiction fan, in which case you’re probably aware that R.U.R. stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots – the lines I quoted a minute ago about the robot uprising? – these are from the final scene of the play.
RUR is famous in particular because it is where we get one of the most famous neologisms in all of science fiction: robot. The word is derived from the Czech word for worker, but with a sense here closer to forced labour or slavery.
The play is set in a future in which emotionless human-like robots (closer really to what we might call androids now) have become a cheap and efficient form of labour across the world. Their increased sentience as the play goes on, however, quickly leads to problems and they ultimately revolt against their human creators.
So right from the very first use of the word robot, there are tensions and contrasts between the miraculous technological advancement the robots embody, and fundamental issues of freedom and slavery and what it is to be human.
These are tensions, as we’ll see in this episode, that have only increased in the decades since Capek’s play, both in the field of robotics as well as in fiction and popular culture.
So I thought I’d better talk to two people: a roboticist who also writes about literature:
I’m Dr. Robin Murphy. I’m a Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at Texas a&m. And I specialize in robotics, artificial intelligence and robotics. But I also love science fiction. And I write and blog about the interaction between science fiction in robotics and real robots.
…And a literature professor who has worked and published extensively on robotics:
So my name is Teresa Heffernan and I’m a professor in the Department of English language and literature at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, in Nova Scotia, Canada. And I work, one of my areas anyway, is on robots and AI in fiction.
Now robots were not invented by Capek by any means. There is a long history of various types of automated or mechanical or artificial people created by humans. You have plenty of animated creatures in classical mythology, or tales like the Golem from Jewish folklore, an animated being, made from clay in the most well-known version of the tale. In the 19th century there is, of course, Frankenstein’s monster, as well as plenty of creatures powered by steam, and then electricity. Many of these are what came to be called “Edisonades”, stories inspired by, and typically starring, the renowned inventor Thomas Edison.
There are distinctions of course between all of these: Everett F. Bleiler’s wonderful Science Fiction: The Early Years, the near 1000-page doorstopper reference book – and my go-to starting point for lots of episodes – lists a whole host of different variants: androids, anthropomorphic and zoomorphic prime movers, automatons, cyborgs, and so on.
I’m not going to go into all the distinctions here, and in any case they are often not clear. Bleiler defines a robot as “a device capable of individual action without control or direction from outside”, which I think is fair enough. It’s that lack of outside control which is key in moving from simply machines in the shape of humans, to machines capable of making decisions themselves.
The former can be seen in, say, The Steam Man of the Plains, by the dime-novelist Edward Ellis, one of the best-known examples of an early robot-like creature but where the Steam Man in question is a machine in the shape of a man which still needs outside direction.
There is much more autonomy in a tale like The Future Eve by the French writer *ahem* Jean-Marie-Mathias-Philippe-Auguste, comte de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (those aristocrats and their names) This is the work credited with introducing the word android, a story in which Thomas Edison creates an artificial woman.
Which brings us back to:
Karel Capek / RUR
Capek explains in this 1923 interview, and I’m just paraphrasing here, that you know, the older inventor, Mr. Rossum is actually a product of 19th century scientific materialism. And his desire to create an artificial man is about proving God unnecessary and absurd.
That’s Teresa Heffernan again
But then the younger Rossum is a scientist who doesn’t care about metaphysics, and he’s only interested in you know, industrial production. And Capek warns, he says, and this is a quote from them, those who think to master the industry are themselves mastered by it. Robots must be produced, although they’re a war industry, or rather, because they are a war industry. And I think, you know, in comparison with those earlier myths about the creation of artificial people, here, you get a shift to the sort of anxieties about the legacy of the Industrial Revolution, automation, increasing wealth divisions, mechanization, and the military industrial complex.
So that’s kind of an interesting background
to see that we’ve had both that sort of hard science that robots are there for, you know, as mechanisms as the apotheosis of invention, and then we have this other narrative that they’re a way to explore otherness, they’re a way to explore humanity, they’re a way to explore discrimination.
The science and the fiction. The technological achievement, and the ethical, philosophical and social questions behind it.
And so, from the early 20th century onwards, robots became a mainstay of both science fiction and popular culture and, soon enough, scientific research. Sometimes in complementary ways. Sometimes, as we’ll see, in very problematic ways.
Not long after RUR came the Fritz Lang silent film, Metropolis, a classic which has been hugely influential on film and science film since its release in 1927:
And so that was about metropolis, again, a very social view of robots where they realized they can build, the rich people realize they can build robots to replace the workers, and they’re going to solve that problem. They won’t have to deal with those pesky workers who literally live underground and have very bad product safety and worker safety ethics. And they just won’t even have to worry about that anymore. And so they they build Maria, a replica of Maria, and she’s an evil slutty robot, to help encourage the workers to to do a rebellion that they can’t possibly win. So there’ll be an excuse to put that rebellion down. And then it backfires on everyone.
From there, you have robots in all sorts of science fiction stories, particularly in the pulp fiction magazines from the 30s onwards. Then, perhaps most famously, there’s Isaac Asimov’s Robot stories – the collection I, Robot and lots of others. From these stories we get Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics
A robot may not harm a human or, through inaction, allow harm to come to a human.
A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.[This, by the way, is not me editing my voice, this is my kid’s voice changer toy. Robots are everywhere]
A lot of this is coming about and the big pivotal moment, of course, Asimov had been writing the I, Robot stories back in the 40s. And all of that’s mostly coming from the use of robots for the nuclear industry. Because when we during World War Two, we’re having to handle nuclear material, and you can’t do that as a human. And so building these teleoperated waldos are these force reflecting manipulators, which Highland wrote a story about called Waldo, which everybody who uses them calls them waldos as a result, because self reflecting force manipulators, it just doesn’t really trip off the tongue. Yeah. And so you say you saw that, and again, that idea that whole entire processes would be taken over by robots? Because it was so unsafe for a human to do that. And what would that mean?
And from Asimov onwards, robots have become a mainstay of popular culture, taking on a whole array of different forms:
in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep – that of course, was the basis of the of the film Blade Runner – you have androids who are built as labor and servants, but they’re in… they inhabit this degraded world due to radiation contamination from nuclear war that’s destroyed most of animal life. And in that, you know, in Dick, and then also in Blade Runner, you’re never quite sure about that boundary between the human and the robot and the Android.
In the first alien, which was 1979. You have Ash who’s an Android built by a corporation. You know, and but Ash views the crew as expendable but then in the later Alien series, Bishop is an Android that turns against his makers and ends up siding with the crew. So that in turn is opening that possibility of turning tech against its makers
And then of course, there’s a whole other tradition of fiction and robots, you know, as friendly or heroic. So you get Astroboy, and the Japanese anime series from the 50s, and C3P0 and R2D2 and Star Wars and Data in Star Trek and Rosie, the robot and the Jetsons, you know, this promise of technology as offering us all this leisure time.
So we have robots as high-tech labour-saving devices, and as usurpers of human jobs; robots as distinctly Other and as indistinguishable from humans; robots as a means of questioning what it is to be human, and highlighting the ethics behind the creation of artificial life.
There’s a lot going on here, and these are the fictional robots, we haven’t even got to the real-life one yet.
But this is important. Fictional robots are not real robots, much as we might like to think of them in the same ways.
This is something that Dr Heffernan has spent a lot of time trying to pick apart:
I started to notice in the media, and in academic and popular science journals, references to fiction, particularly in the discussions of AI and robotics. And it was if, like, you know, fiction was coming true. And you saw a lot of headlines like that in the in the media, you know, oh look, you know, another science fiction comes true. And I thought, well, that’s just not how fiction works. So I spent a couple of years visiting robotics labs in the US and Japan. And I even stayed at the robot hotel, in Huis Ten Bosch, which is in Japan.
And I spent, you know, and I
Wait, sorry, go back a second, what’s the robot hotel?
Oh you haven’t heard of the robot hotel? So it’s a robot hotel. So I was there, when was I there, in 2015, I think, and it got tons and tons of media attention. And it the idea was that, you know, it was this robot hotel and it was all run, staffed by robots and that this was the future of the hotel industry. So I went to stay there. You know, and I’ve actually written a blog about it at the time. But, you know, it was all very gimmicky. And you can see right from the beginning that it was really about having the humans as this technology so often is about getting the humans to do all the labor, you know, it’s like a glorified kind of automated check in.
In 2019 the hotel made the headlines again when it laid off half its robot staff. Seemingly lots of them just didn’t work, or were just very annoying. The velociraptor robots at checkin weren’t actually able to check people in, and the concierge robot couldn’t give guests information about nearby attractions. Lots of the robots have now been replaced by humans.
There was a there was a robot, there was a little robot in my room called cherry tan. And, you know, it started talking. And it was speaking Japanese, of course, but it started talking in the middle of night, I just about jumped out of my skin. And that as I just tried to turn it off, you know, all the lights kept going on and everything was automated. It was just like a nightmare. I you know, I was really like. Yeah, it was, it was a strange, strange hotel.
I can’t believe I’d never come across this place before.
Anyway, returning to the robots of science fiction and science fact:
And I spent, you know, and I talked to a lot of people in the field of AI. And I was trying to sort out the fiction from the science and to investigate some of those claims about human-like machines. And I think everywhere now that I’m looking, fiction is used to market the industry of AI and robotics. And I want to reclaim fiction as fiction. So, you know, fiction as allegory and metaphor. In other words, not some literal future.
You know, I want to look at fiction, as fiction and fiction, by definition, you know, doesn’t come true. It’s not prophetic.
And fiction is the place of the impossible, and it’s a place of the fabulous. And when science fiction is just conflated with science fact instant, you get you get tech propaganda, and then you get this whole promise, you know, of things like autonomous super intelligent machines, and you get predictions of the singularity where humans and machines are supposed to merge, and we’re all supposed to fly off into the cosmos. And, you know, we’re all going to be immortal.
This is a whole other world: transhumanism – I did an episode about it, Ep 16, you can go check it out after this if you like.
And I think all this distracts from what’s really going on in the big tech corporations, which are the ones who are buying up the AI and robotics companies. So companies like Google and Facebook and Amazon. And you know what have they been doing with it? Well, they’ve been amassing huge amounts of wealth and power by stealing private data and selling it. They’ve contributed to the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories with algorithms that favours sensationalist content over fact-based arguments. They’re investing in a kind of platform capitalism, and the Uberization of work. And they’re one of the things that their algorithms do are automate and accelerate race and gender and class biases. And they, but also there’s this, you know, forcing of humans to work like machines. And other questions come up. And I think, you know, again, that all distracts, if you’re just reading the field through fiction, what gets lost is, well, what are the environmental impacts of this resource intensive energy? And the huge amounts of power that are required for training AI models? And how is ethics being discussed in the field? And what does the future of warfare look like, given the massive investment of the military? And what happens to society when we have technology that manipulates language but doesn’t understand it?
Science fiction can be a powerful tool to understand the world around us, but not if it’s reduced to propaganda. Many scientists and other have, of course, been influenced by science fiction, but Dr Heffernan, not unreasonably, worries about a complete and an utter misreading of the source material.
you have a whole advisory scientific advisory board that advises Hollywood on getting the science right, in Hollywood films, you have not you have nothing no, no equivalent of scientists expected to get the fiction right, you know, and when I say get the fiction, right, I mean, how do they read it in the kind of cultural, historical, cultural or historical context? How do they understand allegory? How do they understand figurative language? You know, and there’s no attention to that aspect of fiction when it gets used by scientists.
And all this might be kind of funny if it didn’t have such huge real-world repercussions.
Take the issue of space exploration:
Jeff Bezos, who’s head of Amazon and Elon Musk, and they both attribute their interest in their space ambitions with Star Trek. And then you look at Gene Roddenberry, you know, who is the creator of Star Trek. And he said, well, I was influenced by Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels 18th century, and he wasn’t envisioning some realizable future space travel, you know, any more than Swift believe there were nations of six inch people. And so Roddenberry was always insisting that each show was about learning from the past in order to form the present, and that each episode was about offering up a vision of the world that was more equitable, and more just so he was emerging from the counterculture of the 60s, and he was using allegory to write about racism and the Vietnam War and civil rights and gender inequity and advertising and intercontinental missiles and nationalism.
And I think when Bezos you know, who sort of models himself after, or thinks he models himself after Captain Picard, or Elan Musk, attribute their space ambitions, I want to say like well how are you reading fiction though? That you’re not talking about, you know, you’re talking about power and ambition and colonialism and imperialism and all these things that Star Trek was actually questioning.
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Back to the robots.
So, if Dr Heffernan is trying to reclaim science fiction as fiction, and highlight the dangers of using fictional robots as tech propaganda, Dr Robin Murphy is building robots with a very keen sense of both how science fiction can help roboticists and of the ethics behind robots and artificial intelligence:
Well, ethics is part of what we do as engineers, right? I mean, we’ve got a code of ethics, things that we should be looking at a lot of the discussions about ethics of AI – and I have been X PRIZE AI X PRIZE judge, I’ve been AI for good. I’ve been doing humanitarian AI work for two decades – A lot of the discussions we hear about ethics are about, oh, you know, we need to give robots right and we don’t want to impress them and stuff. And I’m like, No, we’re still at the operational morality level, is making sure the algorithms work. I mean, we’ve seen a lot of discussion about bias and algorithms that when you train computer vision systems, like for a car, not to hit people, they’re using databases that are mostly white male adults, and so people of color, it tends not to recognize, and it doesn’t recognize kids. So you could conceivably wind up with a system that is safer statistically than a person driving, but could in fact, be more likely to take out kids or kids of color? Because it’s not as good, you know? And that’s like, whoa, no, that’s not good. Now, we got to do better. So that’s a very different conversation than the conversations we see in the press, which are more like, will robots be uprising
A robot uprising may make for great science fiction story, but we’re probably safe from the robots for a while yet. Dr Murphy’s work is actually in the field of disaster robotics, she in fact one of the cofounders of the field:
I tell people, I’ve been in 29 disasters, not of my own making, with robots, and in learning what’s there and that. And so my research is in artificial intelligence, and in particular human robot interaction, how to use artificial intelligence to reduce human error, or to reduce robot error, these are very high consequence high pressure situations. And it’s all based on what we see in the field. So, it’s very field-informed. I tell people, a lot of my work is participant observer anthropology, like Margaret Mead, you know, the one who was in Samoa, with beaches and everybody having lots of sex. I get to go to disasters, where there aren’t beaches, there’s no sex that I’m aware of. It’s hot. It’s nasty or super cold. And I’m grateful if there is a portapotty, anywhere near, there’s just so kind of different, but it is participant observer ethnography.
And when she’s not on the ground, deploying robots in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, or the Haiti Earthquake or the Fukishima nuclear disaster, she uses science fiction as a way to help fellow roboticists and students better understand the field:
So, what we know how to do in artificial intelligence for robotics is more than we can actually build. I mean, you think about a robot, it’s a very complex, you know, you have to get, let’s use a human body analogy, you have to get all the muscles the skeleton, the nerves, the eyes, the tactile, you know, syncing your fingers, everything has to be perfect or doesn’t work. And that’s very hard. And so typically, you don’t see a lot of robot inexpensive, so you don’t see a lot of actual robots. And same thing with autonomous cars, they’re good up to a point. And so we can see the theory, but we can’t see. I can’t give them good concrete examples to take apart. But we’ve got some good science fiction stories that illustrate certain attributes that we can take apart and use that as a way to ground.
She published Robotics Through Science Fiction in 2018, using stories by Asimov /z/ and Philip K Dick and others to explain the principles of artificial intelligence.
She also works on human-robot interaction, one of the most fascinating, and incredibly complicated aspects of robotics. I mean so much of science fiction involving robots hinges on this aspect – how we, as humans, interact with robots. There’s the famous Turing test, where a person has a text-based conversation with a machine and a fellow human. The machine is deemed to have passed if the tester is unable to work out which is the machine, and which is the person.
There’s that strange, uncanny feeling of talking to something that seems to be human but is not – and even the concept of the “uncanny” comes from Freud and other early 20th century psychology, using a robot-like character in an ETA Hoffman story “The Sandman”.
Novels like Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep? – and the film version Blade Runner – or more recently the re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica centre around an inability to tell the difference between humans and human-like robots or androids. Sometimes it is the smallest of interactions that give a robot away as non-human.
And you may think that with today’s technology, basic human-robot interaction might be a relatively easy task. You would be wrong
A lot of people keep saying, Oh, I just want to be able to talk to it like a person. So it’ll do what I want it to do. And it’s like, and will 50% of the time I tell my students what I want them to do, and they do something else. Because human conversation is ambiguous. We have a very strong common ground, we have a background, shared background, a lot of common sense, you know, about 20 years of that, storing lots of data about the world. And then we use these cues, like when you say, oh, could you pick up my book, and I’m looking over and there’s one book over there, and you see that I’m looking there. And so that must be my book, and you’re gonna bring that? Well, that’s an awful lot to expect a robot to do, right? I mean, that took years. I mean, you’re talking, what, 8, 10 years and maybe 15, to get your kids to do that
I asked Dr Murphy about some fiction that embodies some of these concepts in robotics and she mentioned the novel Little Eyes by the Argentine writer Samanta Schweblin, publish just last year in translated form.
In the book there’s a new gadget invented, called a Kentuki, which has become wildly popular across the world:
And they’re about the size of a Furby, but they got wheels. And the deal is that you can buy the robot, and you can buy it and it can look like a dragon or it can look like a panda, you know, or something, you know, a unicorn. So it’s got five basic shapes, and you buy that, well. Somebody else buys a controller, which is a dedicated tablet. So it’s like your little Gameboy tablet computer. And then if enough people buy them then, they hook up, they randomly pair you up with the controller, and you’re called the dweller. And the one who actually owns the robot has called the keeper, and then it turns on, and then lo and behold, you as the keeper get to watch somebody who’s trying to figure out how to control this cheap robot with one camera, and it can’t talk. So it can’t really do anything, but it can roll around. And so now it’s kind of a game, what are they trying to do? What are they trying to say? You know, why? Why do they keep going to the window? Well, that may be because you live in Scandinavia, they live in Jamaica, and they really want to see snow. Right? But you don’t know that. And so that’s kind of fun.
And that’s all the problem, which we’ve seen, like with the Sony Ibu dolls, dogs, which didn’t really do anything interesting compared to what real dogs do. Because real dogs have a strong sense of what they want to do when like my dog, when he if I’m teaching from home remotely, and he wants to go outside, he really doesn’t care what my needs are. And will not stop until I let him out. So you know, and that can be annoying, where as the Sony Ibu, you just turned off, but can’t do that with the real things.
The book, as you might imagine, explores both the fascinating and novel aspects of this connection, as well as the dark and more disturbing sides to having a creature, controlled by someone else, living in your house. And it does it in a way that, for a roboticist, really highlights some of the ethical issues and technical limitations around human-robot interaction.
There’s also the work of John Scalzi, who has published two science fiction police procedurals: Lock In, from 2014, and Head On, from 2018. In these novels a virus has swept across the world (yes) which, for some people, causes complete paralysis, a form of locked-in syndrome, where a person is awake but not able to move in any way.
And one of the first victims is the president why so Hayden so he does a moonshot type program, they develop brain/machine interfaces, so you’re paralyzed, but you can interact with the world through a robot. So you’re tele-operating a robot and you have a rich virtual reality interface with everybody else, but you’re mostly interacting with that. And some people don’t like the hate, send the three. So they call the robot C3PO because they look kind of humanoid, and they’re kind of annoying. So you know, what a perfect name. And, and so, as Chris, the main character jumps from robot body, he’s an FBI investigator, a precinct that doesn’t like him, just hasn’t bothered to recharge his body. So he can’t do anything when he gets there. And you see that some of the handicap access, he can’t isn’t handicap accessible, so he can’t get his robot body there. And so you’re seeing that kind of discrimination? And what does that mean, when you’re in a different group? How does that play out? And so I think that’s, that was one of the very fun, realistic discussions,
So the robot uprising will not be happening any time soon. Instead, we need to explore how robots really work, as complex as that may be. We can celebrate innovative, sometimes life-changing technology, and open up new ways to talk about AI and robotics. But we can also look to the best fiction to act, not as a marketing exercise for tech companies, but as a way to explore all sorts of questions about our identity, and our humanity.
That’s it for another episode of Words To That Effect, thanks so much for listening. And thank you so much to my two guests, Dr Teresa Heffernan and Dr Robin Murphy.
Dr Heffernan’s most recent book is Cyborg Futures: Cross-disciplinary Perspectives on Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, which does exactly that, taking in really varied perspectives from all sorts of different disciplines. I’ll put a link to this and to all her work and bio on the WTTE website. Which is wttepodcast.com
Dr Murphy has a TED talk on the area of disaster robotics, which you can watch at TED.com or you can have a look at all her different work at roboticsthroughsciencefiction.com. And again I’ll put links to everything on WTTE too.
If you liked the episode come say hi, I’m on twitter @cedreid and the show’s on Instagram and facebook @wordstothateffect.
And tell your friends – human and robot – about the show, I’d love to keep reaching new listeners and growing the show and I can do that with your help.
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See you next time, for episode 50.