Jack Kirby Collector Edited by John Morrow Jack Kirby Collector celebrates the life and career of the "King" of comics through interviews with Kirby and his contemporaries, feature articles, and rare & unseen Kirby artwork. Now in tabloid format, the magazine showcases Kirby's art at even larger size.

The World That's Coming?

by & © Kevin Carhart

From Jack Kirby Collector #21

Photo by Mark Miller

Science-fiction which deals with technology run amok has never been more relevant in these times of ever-faster computers. The first issue of Jack Kirby's OMAC is particularly disturbing in light of robotics research being done right now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

I hope I don't live long enough to go through what OMAC's meek alter ego Buddy Blank does. After a few pages of his brutal, alienating office job, we are glad to see him run into his friend, the beautiful and compassionate Lila. She is a welcome change.

"You always show up at the right time," Buddy tells her.

Lila's flawlessness might have tipped Buddy off that she was too good to be true. She is revealed to be a robot, from a line called Build-A-Friend, indistinguishable from real human beings in every respect. The villainous corporate inventors of Build-A-Friend have a goal in mind that is sensational, comic-booky, even funny: A Build-A-Friend is a walking bomb, shown being received and assembled by a gentleman who is charmed and delighted-until she blows up. But the true horror is quieter and more subtle than a vamping, exploding call girl. The unassuming Buddy Blank has the nightmare discovery that his trusted friend and confidante is not a person after all. If this were possible, what could we ever trust again?

OMAC #1 packs as much of a chilling punch as Blade Runner in tackling the line between people and humanoid robots. Kirby is at the height of his powers here-OMAC is one of his first projects after the Fourth World-and he draws Lila sympathetically enough to make us believe in her as Buddy does. But we are also exposed to harrowing images of the Build-A-Friend assembly plant: Artificial young women in disarray, loose heads and legs falling out of their packaging, mingled with machinery and a sickly foam.

"Where does humanity stop and technology begin?" asks OMAC. If a machine like Lila is not already among us, she might be gestating in the robotics labs of MIT. Prof. Rodney Brooks' group has built and is building a human-like robot called COG. According to one of the project's Web pages, you can consider COG to be "...a set of sensors and actuators which tries to approximate the sensory and motor dynamics of a human body. Except for legs and a flexible spine, the major degrees of motor freedom in the trunk, head, and arms are all there. Sight exists, in the form of video cameras... a vestibular system is on the way. Hands are being built as you read this, and a system for vocalization is also in the works." 1 COG's inventors reason that "if we are to build a robot with humanlike intelligence, then it must have a humanlike body in order to be able to develop similar sorts of representations." 2

COG can follow a moving target with his eyes, and he can reach for a moving target with his hands. COG can learn.

"Each time the robot attempts to reach for a target and fails, it learns from that mistake. By waving its hand, the robot is able to determine the point that it actually reached toward, and can make an incremental refinement based on that error signal." 3

Maybe there will be an upper limit to the ways in which COG can learn. I hope there is. Brooks' team includes Daniel Dennett, resident philosopher, which is a sign that COG is being developed inn a context with some kind of morality ad thoughtfulness. But what will happen when the cat is out of the bag? I hope we never need an OMAC to help us keep tabs on our humanity.

1 Cog, The Robot

2 The Cog Shop

3 Cog Video Clips Library - This page contains many short movie clips which show what COG has learned to do so far.

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