When the technologically-oriented German band Kraftwerk made the song, We Are the Robots, they were not too far from telling the truth. The idea of artificially created slaves has captured the imagination of mankind for centuries. Tales abound in myths and legends from every corner of the globe. The concepts of statues coming to life to guard an ancient treasure or fend off formidable foes abound. From the myth of the clay Golem to the children’s story of Pinocchio to the steam-driven, bronze giant Talus of Greek mythology, magically animated, manmade figures have become part of the human subconscious. All of these creatures have come alive for us on film. With the daily increases in robotic technology, it is more important than ever to understand the questions, morals and cautions that robots on film offer us.
During the age of enlightenment, science entered the picture. People stopped looking to gods or spirits to explain natural phenomena. With a religious admiration of the universe, they turned to science to explain what God, or accident, wrought. Medicine also came to the forefront as a field of study, and the human creature became scrutinized as constructions. The idea that a human or an approximation might be constructed with available materials must have found purchase in the imaginings of doctors, although they had no idea how this could be accomplished.
The myth of Washington’s wooden teeth or Voltaire’s comments concerning eyeglasses offer proof of desire to improve and replace ineffective parts. The idea of replacing worn and useless parts started with simple devices. A cane would help a lame man walk, a peg leg would replace a missing limb, glasses would enhance the function of failing eyes, and teeth could be replaced with functioning dentures or the like. This added to the apparentness of the possibility of constructing an entire creature.
Out of this advance in thinking, a writer of fiction examined the possibility of creating an artificial slave. Utilizing the concepts of the new discoveries in medical science and electricity, Mary Shelley wrote the novel Frankenstein. This story of man creating a being in his own image also displayed the hubris related with such an endeavor.
During nineteenth century, the era of steam power and scientific advancement, the idea of machines in human form found purchase in the popular mind. We had harnessed energy to motivate us across the country on steam power, and even early experiments like Cugnot’s steamer anticipated the modern automobile. It was no great stretch of the imagination that we might create something to do for us our hum-drum chores, and the concept grew in popular fiction. Even sideshow hoaxes began appearing representing ‘steam-men’ or ‘automatons’ that seemingly performed human tasks. One of the more famous of these hoaxes was The Great Chess Automaton, a wooden figure dressed in Turkish clothes and with an uncanny ability to play chess.
While the idea of a scientifically created golem lived in the popular mind, it was the Czech playwright Karel Capek who applied the word ‘robot’ in relation to an artificial human in his play-Rossum’s Universal Robots (R.U.R.). Capek wrote the play in 1920, and it depicted, as did Frankenstein before it, the dangers of creating artificial men. The word ‘robot’ is derived from the Czech word ‘robota’. ‘Robota’ means ‘drudgery’, or even something akin to ‘slave’. It is certainly a befitting term, and it writers quickly applied to the idea of mechanical men. So much so, that it became a scientific term as well. Robots abound in factories as robot arms, and even in police and military work.
The idea of a robot that performs all the tasks of a human, and perhaps better than a human can, offers some intriguing possibilities. Asimov in his writings offers many of these possibilities. Everything from mining on inhospitable terrain and environments on other planets to spending long hours in the repetitive task of covering the day-to-day operations of remote space stations, the possible capacities of robots seem limitless. The advent of film in the early twentieth century brought with it the idea of replicating the image and movement of humans. This seems logically to lead to the replication of the entire creature in some artificial capacity. The robots brought to life on film examine the promises and problems involved with creating artificial men to do what we cannot do or would prefer not to do as humans. Interestingly, the robots of film often speak as much about the experience of being human as it does about the problems and benefits of creating artificial men.
When we look into the skullish features and blazing red eyes of the Terminator robot, or into the kind, round eyes of C3PO from Star Wars, we feel we can see a bit of ourselves. Looking at a robot and seeing a mirror is perhaps both the most frightening and most comforting brought to us by the robots of film. The recent film, I, Robot, starring Will Smith and based on eponymously based on Isaac Asimov’s collection of short stories about robots, explores the very humanity of the creatures we are even now utilizing to take over mundane or dangerous tasks. The largest question we face as humans is whether or not we will be supplanted, voluntarily or otherwise, by our own creations. The best film robots force us to look these possibilities square in the face. In the future, we may evolve to become more like robots as robots become more like us. The civil rights questions that will arise will likely remind us of the robots of film.