I’ve lived in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex for my entire life, but this post isn’t about my geographical pedigree. Instead I want to tell you about a robot I once knew, a robot I met in the late eighties during my troubled adolescence on the north edge of Dallas.
This robot — a delightful, giant metal structure with arms for slides and ladders to climb inside — lived at the playground down my block. That playground has long since been remodeled and I can’t find a good picture of it, but I’ve posted an image from a similar park to give you an idea.
Now’s a good time to point out that as a white girl in a diverse, lower/middle class neighborhood in Farmers Branch (just across from the Dallas border), I was actually in the minority because many of my classmates and neighbors were black or Hispanic. They were also my friends. Did racial tension exist? Yes, of course it did. But most of us tried our best to navigate (and rise above) such prejudice.
Okay, back to the robot. I don’t remember having a name for it, so I’ll make one up: “Teen Spirit the Robot.” Those were, after all, days of Nirvana. The days of crying with my friends in front of the TV when we all got the news that Kurt Cobain shot himself. The days of angst and hormones and — if I’m being completely honest with you — the days of hope. Why hope? Because like most young teens, we knew we could do better than our parents’ generation. The Information Age promised it.
Teen Spirit the Robot wasn’t perfect. Unlike today’s approved plastic playground equipment, it was prone to rust and scratchy edges. Its graffiti tattoos were both obscene and educational, the source of many awkward conversations between parents and their kids. In the summer Texas sun, those metal slides became unbearably hot for young skin. The top of the robot — its partially-enclosed command center — was rumored to have been a favorite hideout for troublemakers.
To my knowledge, that robot never killed anyone. On the contrary, it brought children and teens of all races and backgrounds together. Through play, it offered hope. Granted, it was a kind of hope sprinkled with four-letter words and rusty ladder rungs, but it was hope nonetheless.
Last week, any hope I still had in technology — in the Information Age being my generation’s ticket to greatness — died in that Dallas parking garage. Along with the rest of the city, I’m heartbroken. As I wade through the emotional fallout, I’m realizing that my heart broke twice. Once with the horrible news of the sniper attack at an otherwise peaceful protest for Black Lives Matter. The second when I read how police took out the sniper: “Police Used Bomb Disposal Robot to Kill a Dallas Shooting Suspect: This may be the first example of a robot being used by American police to kill a suspect.”
That’s not the Dallas robot I used to know. The robot I used to know didn’t kill blacks or whites or anyone else, it brought people together and provided something of value.
As a science fiction writer rooted in Texas, I am particularly dismayed that Dallas could now easily become ground zero of the robot uprising after a cleverly engineered urban race war in which we do most of the killing ourselves. At least now we have a plausible answer to that age-old question from classic eighties cyberpunk — what would cause machines to turn against humanity?
Oh, that’s simple. We trained them to destroy us.
Did the sniper need to die? Probably, but I don’t know. I watched the tragedy unfold from the comfort of my own home. Did police really have no other option than to use a robot assassin? Again, I don’t know, but I can’t in good conscience criticize the actions of brave men and women who made hard calls to protect me.
I will say this: All human lives matter…
Unless you’re not human.