Dear Robots: It’s time to take your helmets off


Many years ago my father gave me the book “The Star Diaries” by Stanislaw Lem. The book is a collection of the incredible voyages of space traveller Ijon Tichy. It was one of my first science fiction novels. I loved it. The eleventh voyage is a parable of living in a country, where everybody upholds the official ideology no one actually believes in. Having grown up in the “Peoples Republic of Poland” Lem knew, what he was talking about.

As far as I remember, the story goes like this:

Ijon Tichy is sent to a planet inhabited solely by machines. His mission is to find out why these machines are hostile towards humanity.20120821-223029.jpgSoon after landing he is apprehended by a group of robots and thrown into jail. The planet’s high court sentences him to work in the labor camps. He is given a robot disguise he will have to wear day and night. If any robot is ever to find out that he is human he will be killed on the spot.20120821-223240.jpgIjon starts slaving away at the camp. At night, while the robots are recharging their batteries, he sneaks out into the woods to eat berries and drink water. One night he realizes that he is not alone in the dark. It seems as if there are other humans disguised as robots. He can see them shuffling berries into their mouth. Trying to get in contact with the other prisoners he is almost shot. No one is willing to admit to be human, too dangerous.20120821-223425.jpgAfter a couple of weeks Ijon is quite certain that there are no real robots around. By sheer luck he is able to sneak into the central control room of the machines. Where to his surprise he finds out that long ago humans had controlled the robots. When the last guardian died of a heart attack the automatic program took over, ensuring that the work at the camps could proceed.

During the next morning assembly he is able to broadcast a message through the intercom:

Everyone takes their helmets off and realizes:

Well-done Ijon. Mission accomplished.

What can we learn from this story for life and work?

Our believes, values, the goals we set have a strong influence on how we act. If we believe that taking our helmet off will have terrible consequences, we will continue to act as robots. Like the monkeys in G. R. Stephenson experiment our minds will go on autopilot and we will end up acting like our mechanical friends, following a program blindly. Believes we don’t question take on the form of a master marionette player living in our mind, invisibly guiding our actions.

The easiest thing to do when surrounded by robots is to desguise yourself as a robot. I once worked in a company I did not fit in at all. After a couple of weeks my wife and a couple of honest friends remarked: “What is happening to you? It seems that you are turing into a robot.” Shortly afterwards I decided to quit. To my surprise my colleagues at work congratulated me for my decision. They did not like the work environment either and told me: “I am only doing this for 2-3 years in order to advance my career.” Staying took more courage than leaving. Living in robot country is hard. We just should be aware that putting on the robot disguise is easier than taking it off.

During Gandhi’s struggle to free the people of India he repeatedly said: “If we are attached to our goal of winning liberty, we shall not hesitate to adapt bad means.” In other words he was saying: “Being attached too much to one’s goals can potentially turn you into a robot.” Acting without attachment is one of the key teachings of the Bhagavad Gita. Another important teaching is: Even if we act as robots, deep inside we will always remain human.

What if you can’t leave the planet you are stuck on?

Ijon was lucky to find the access to the central control room to easily reach everyone on the planet of the machines. Sending an email to probably won’t help. Learning how to reach the minds and hearts of the people around us might be the hardest thing to learn in live and at work. To first step on this path is simple:

Take your helmet off!



    • Hi Alex,
      I just returned from a week of holidays during which I read “The Green Isle of the Great Deep” you had recommended to me. Such a wonderful book! Incredible how well Neil Gunn describes the “perfect” state ruled by knowledge. Using Neil’s words I would say that in order to behave less like robots we need more wisdom and less knowledge, more heart and less head, more spirit and less intellect.

      • Alex Jones

        Hi philipp, I am so glad you found The Green Isle of the Great Deep inspirational as much as I did. That is exactly as I feel, more heart less head. This is a book that perhaps political leaders and other decision makers would find useful reading.

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