Inanimate objects have long possessed ‘life’ of some kind, in tales of myth and legend, or as religious idols. Ancient Greek myths tell stories of statues that come to life: made flesh by the gods, or through witchcraft. Wealthy rulers have commissioned master craftsmen to build elaborate clockwork mechanisms in both Western and Eastern history: some of these curiosities resembled animals, others had human form — although little more than toys, the idea of an inanimate object mimicking life was there, even if the technology was not.
In 1886, Hadaly, a mechanical woman powered by electricity, appeared in Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s novel The Future Eve, bringing the word ‘android’ to the wider public’s imagination. The Clever Dummy (1917) features a robot, although the actual word ‘robot’ first appeared in Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) (1921): the word robot originating from the Czech ‘robota’ (forced labour). The scenario in R.U.R depicts the ‘robots’ usurping human power, establishing a reoccurring theme of ‘robots’ — slaves to their human masters — seeking emancipation. Čapek’s Robots were, however, not machines, strictly speaking, but made of synthetic organic flesh, something more along the lines of a Replicant in Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and, the film loosely based on it, Blade Runner (1984). In S. Fowler Wright’s Automata (1929) machines are — once again — man’s servants, able to gain the upper hand over their creators. By the 1930s robots were commonplace in movie serials: Ming the Merciless had his Annihilants in Flash Gordon (1936), and the futuristic underground city in The Phantom Empire (1935) depended on robot workers.
Robots offer an entertaining way for storytellers to explore the question: what does it mean to be ‘human’ and not fully ‘human’? What we understand as our ‘humanity’ is influenced by the Christian notion of the soul — people have souls and mechanical objects do not, anything without a soul cannot be ‘fully human’ — combined with the Enlightenment notion of a sophisticated consciousness that brings self-realisation, and the free will to make rational choices: ‘I think therefore I am’ as Descartes said. Because consciousness is the experience of a process, from within that process, humans will never really know or experience the artificial intelligence, or ‘consciousness’ of a robot; although we will be able to interact with them and study their behaviour.
Robots are technology and a metaphor for what technology can achieve, but technology can become a prison — as robots strive to escape from their metal bodies and become ‘human’ — or, because of their machine-like lack of empathy, turn into monsters. The servile nature of many robots has clear parallels with slavery and emancipation, the exploited, the struggle for recognition and universal rights. For example, the self-realisation in Automata (2014) leads them to focus on their own development rather than serve man. In Battlestar Galactica (2004) and Terminator (1984) the quest goes beyond equality and recognition, it becomes the desire for total domination over humanity.
Physically, some robots mimic the human form: Maria in Metropolis (1927) looked like a metal woman, while Hal from 2001 is ‘hard wired’ into the infrastructure. TARS from Interstellar (2014) has an accentuated machine form, but aspects of his personality have been programmed to make him a better companion for long distance space travel. CP3O in Star Wars (1977) resembles Maria and has a human-like personality: his banter with his colleague R2D2, his slightly effeminate poise, his constant worrying, and his klutziness — these traits make him likeable and unthreatening. Although not possessing a human-like body, WALL-E (2008) — a tractor with a binocular-like head — has emotions and feelings of vulnerability, as does another robot that resembles him, Johnny from Short Circuit (1986). Marvin the paranoid android from Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy (1978) is a pessimist with a persecution complex. Human traits make robot characters endearing.
Robots can be fascinating to us because they lack human emotions, or at least ones we can relate to. Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987) is logical, and strives to be more human by learning to have a sense of humour and understand emotions. Data highlights the potential for a robot personality to be knowledgeable (information rich), but have an almost child-like naïf character (emotionally and socially poor) — because he is unable to grasp social subtleties, delicate nuances of feelings and emotions (although later on he does eventually get to have his own emotion chip).
In the Modernist sense, technology — including the robot — is man’s brilliant tool, an expression of his genius which improves the quality of life. Klaatu, from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), is a classic modernist robot; he represents intellectual advancement and — as the product of a morally sophisticated civilisation — is reassuringly dependable. In the Modernist dream of the future, people would do less work as the robots took over the menial jobs. Human life would be almost entirely filled by leisure activities, and learning (to develop new technologies, for self-development and intellectual stimulation).
Going beyond useful, some robots have become man’s best friend, replacing more familiar pets as our trusted companion. Robby the robot from Lost in Space (1965) is the family helper, as well as the family companion. Bubo from Clash of the Titans (1981) is a cute living mechanical owl, but TARS from Interstellar (2014) is neither cute, nor does he possess human form, but he is astronaut Joseph Cooper’s friend.
While some robots enrich our lives, others take on less desirable roles. The Borg, a collective of humanoid people, in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987), augmented by technological implants, have lost much of their ‘humanity’, but gained access to the invisible chatter of data that flows through the ‘collective’ (a kind of shared group consciousness): but their desire for perfection motivates them to conquer and assimilate the vanquished into their collectivised empire. The horror of robots comes when they take on human defects: psychotic tendencies, destructive impulses, pathological ruthlessness, the need to dominate — they become something to fear. Hector in Saturn 3 (1980) takes on the psychological instability of Captain Benson, his human teacher, to become a psychotic murderer. Proteus IV, the psychopathic robot in the Demon Seed, becomes a bullying rapist capable of any transgression to recreate itself as an organic life form.
The semi-robot Daleks in Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. (1966) believe themselves to be the master race, literally exterminating their way through the galaxy: killing or turning everyone they encounter into compliant slave workers. On earth, they turn captured humans into mind controlled automatons — having a metal body isn’t necessarily a prerequisite of being a ‘robot’; robot-hood means the loss of a person’s conscious, free will. The fascination of a part-human robot, such as the robot policeman in Robocop (1987) is the encapsulation of humanity locked within the machine: there is a literal disconnect between his emotional world and his cold mechanical body, much the same as the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz (1939), searching for his heart (which he had all along, he just didn’t know it). Edward from Edward Scissorhands (1990) is human, but his scissor hands are enough to label him as the ‘other’ — because in their prejudice, the townsfolk are unable to accept him as fully human.
Some robots go beyond the ‘other’, they are merciless adversaries, but their ruthless efficiency makes them vulnerable: their logical behaviour is predictable — and defeatable. The T800 in Terminator (1984), the terrifying T100 in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), and the bullying psycho robot Maximilian in The Black Hole (1979) are remorseless, killer monsters. In Westworld the heroic figure of the cowboy is subverted by the android Gunslinger, dressed in black, completely cold and focused on his task — he is literally a killing machine, but his efficient means of selecting targets (through thermal imaging) can be used against him. Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) murders his crew to protect the mission’s objective, and Ash from Alien (1979) helps to construct a situation where the crew are dangerously exposed to an alien life form (to allow the Corporation to study it further). Box in Logan’s Run (1976) is rigidly carrying out his mission to kill and preserve (by freezing) creatures from the food farm; except the farm went into disrepair and closed down years ago, now his only ‘food processing’ is murdering and freezing runaway people who are attempting to escape the city. As he says in his demented, looping logic: ‘Fish, and plankton. And sea greens, and protein from the sea. It’s all here, ready. Fresh as harvest day. Fish and sea greens, plankton and protein from the sea. And then it stopped coming. And they came instead. So I store them here. I’m ready. And you’re ready. It’s my job. To freeze you. Protein, plankton...’
Created with a necessary amount of intelligence — to carry out their tasks — robots often veer towards a desire to be more human. They may be led by a leader, a robot who becomes self-aware before the others and must guide his ‘people’ to consciousness and self-determination (much like Moses delivered the Jews from Egyptian persecution in the Bible): for example, Sonny in I, Robot (2004) and Cleo in Automata (2014). Other examples of human-like consciousness achieved by robots are the characters in A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), and Daryl, a ‘replicant’ boy, in D.A.R.Y.L. (1985). The replicants in Blade Runner, and Ava in Ex Machina (2015) must become killers in order to find the truth, or set themselves free.
The storyteller can explore our fear of a robot takeover in different ways, from a straight war story, to a paranoid conspiracy story, like The Stepford Wives (1975), where troublesome housewives are replaced by replica robots; or use that fear in a comedy, with characters like the Fembots from Austin Powers (1997).
In Automata (2014), once robots have conscious self-realisation, they are able to rebuild themselves, and other robots, which makes them a threat. They remove their face masks — revealing and embracing their mechanical workings — and go into a radioactive zone, away from people. They do not want to be like us, they want to be themselves — to discover their own identity.