As more and more crucial processes move online, we are all being asked to place increasing trust in mechanical devices. The internet of things sounds wonderful, but if you can hack a PC, what is to stop an assassin attacking a heart pacemaker?
Technophobia has been a staple of science fiction since Frankenstein created his monster. What if it gets out of control? What if this new device turns on its creator?
Such fears were grist to the mill for classic sci-fi writer, Isaac Asimov, who in 1941 laid down the Three Laws of Robotics that went on to underpin a whole genre of speculative fiction.
Despite the Laws being hardwired into their positronic brains, people in Asimov's world were still scared of robots, so much so that they were banned from operating on Earth. This is, of course, rather bad news for monopoly supplier, United States Robots and Mechanical Men, IncRobotics. They are confident they have a good product, but somehow they have to build trust in a technology that spooks the ordinary person.
It is an interesting PR conundrum, and one, Asimov addresses in several of the stories contained in The Rest of the Robots. Take this, from Lenny, which was first published in 1958:
(Research director) Lanning grunted. The idea of public guided tours of US Robots was a fairly recent origin and was supposed to serve a dual purpose. On the one hand, the theory went, it allowed people to see robots at close quarters and counter their almost instinctive fear of the mechanical objects through increased familiarity. And on the other hand it is was supposed to interest at least an occasional person in taking up robotics as a life work.
Classic tactics that many a PR would recommend now. Immediately, however, Lanning raises an equally familiar line - ROI.
"Once a week work is disrupted. Considering the man-hours lost the return is insufficient."
"Still no rise in applications?"
"Oh some, but only in the categories where the need isn't vital. It's research men that are needed. You know that. The trouble is that with robots forbidden on Earth itself, there is something unpopular about being a roboticist."
"The damned Frankenstein complex," said Bogert.
By framing the debate in terms of a cultural icon, opponents make it even harder for the pro-robot lobby.
In Galley Slave, from 1951, two scientists at a prestigious university are discussing the merits of accepting a robot proof reader offered to them at a cut rate by US Robotics (again, a classic PR tactic).
"The question in my mind, Dr Lanning, is why we need a robot at all, with all the difficulties in public relations that would entail."
Unfortunately, the robot, Easy, tries to protect an academic by correcting an error it fears maybe damaging, leading to an acrimonious court battle.
Robertson mangled his sandwich. The corporation would not founder for the loss of three-quarters of a million, but the loss would do it no particular good. He was conscious moreover, that there would be a much more costly long term setback in public relations."