Iconic Robots in Sci-Fi
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Although the concept of automated machines that could replace human labor has existed since classical times, only in the XX century more intense research was carried out and the first tangible products of what we call robotics – the science of artificial intelligence – came to fruition.
The word Robot was first coined by Czech playwright Karel Čapek , meaning a humaniform machine, in his 1921 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots).
There are all kinds of robots already at work – industrial and military types, as well as in services. However, the kind of machines that mostly entice human beings is a specific one: the humanoid robots – those who display physical shape close to human beings and are endowed with artificial intelligence that resembles the functionality of our brains. This fascination has two sides to it: 1. We would love to count on human look-alikes who could help us with hard and dangerous manual work, solve intellectual problems, and may even function as companions or lovers – the rationale is these beings would be free of the psychological and emotional baggage that makes human interactions so hard and complicated; 2. On the other hand, we are horrified at the prospect of their taking the world over and becoming our masters.
As a counterpoint to this fear, in 1941, Isaac Asimov, one of the most prolific and popular sci-fi writers ever – having written or edited more than 500 books – introduced in the short story Runaround of the book I, Robot the famous laws that must guide and constrain the behavior of the robots that populate the positronic universe he created in a number of books. Here they are:
The three laws of Robotics:
1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2) A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
The list of robots that have featured prominently in books, magazines, movies and TV shows since the 1940s is huge. They all have been heavily influenced by the fertile imagination and creativity Asimov displayed in his robot books, although some of those new machines tend to bend the traditional laws of robotics in all kinds of manner. In this blog post, we’ll focus on 4 of the most well-known, loved and feared mechanical/engineered beings of all time. Taking into consideration the readers’ interest, we have decided to narrow the scope of our list to robots that have appeared from the 1960s onwards.
In the mid-1960s, kids and their parents became addicted to a TV show which featured one of the first robots many kids set their eyes on. We are talking about the popular show Lost in Space, whose three main characters were a camp older man, Dr. Smith (played hilariously by actor Jonathan Harris), trapped in the Robinsons' spaceship, the Jupiter 2, while trying to sabotage their mission, and therefore sent to space accidentally with the family; the commander’s young son, Will Robinson (Billy Mumy), with whom Smith develops a close friendship; and the ultra popular Robot (officially named Robot B-9) who backed them up in the many adventures throughout space. The Robot had a sweet and caring personality. Besides, it would feel hurt sometimes and could be very funny in his love/hate relationship with Dr. Smith. The main function of the Robot was to analyze alien environments and to alert the members of the spaceship about imminent perils, which he would accomplish by yelling DANGER, DANGER, with his mechanic voice, while hysterically moving his arms up and down. This might appear utterly ridiculous for today’s viewers, but it was considered the most normal behavior for us kids in those naïve days. How else would anyone alert people of problems that lie just ahead?
In 1968 the world was taken aback by a movie (based on a book by the same title written especially for the project by author Arthur C. Clark) that broke conventions, used classical music as the soundtrack of outer space, blurred the lines between pop culture, entertainment and philosophy, in addition to boasting beauty and pathos never seen in sci-fi before. But what people remember mostly about the groundbreaking images and special effects put together by director Stanly Kubrick in the seminal 2001 – A Space Odissey is the sinister voice of the Robot HAL, which goes awry and takes over a spaceship on a mission to Jupiter. Besides the voice, all we see of HAL is a red light which functions as his eye. He is not a moving machine, but a computer with ramifications throughout the spaceship. HAL is responsible for monitoring all the mechanical functions of the spaceship, but is subordinate to the crew members, composed of a couple of human astronauts, who have the power to deactivate him. HAL seems to be friendly and accommodating at the beginning – it’s even seen playing chess with one of his bosses in a scene. However, when the humans sense that there seems to be something wrong with HAL, they decide to turn him off. Too bad their conversation is observed from a distance by HAL’s vigilant mechanic eye, which is able to read their lips. From then on, the robot will take whatever measures it needs to survive.
In the early 1980s’ blockbuster movie Blade Runner, based on the 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, Alien director Ridley Scott astounded audiences worldwide with a disturbing and harsh dystopia, in which human beings and androids shared the same world, without being able to tell each other apart. Robots were taken to a whole new level in this movie. Harrison Ford plays a replicant hunter, a blade runner, whose job is to track down and kill four androids (genetically engineered beings) who seem to have come back to Earth from the distant colonies. He carries on the orders without being aware that he himself is a replicant. The movie entered the realm of cult, and everybody claims to love it. I must admit I was totally enthralled by Blade Runner and his philosophical questions about what makes a human being human, when it first came out. I had never seen anything like that in sci-fi before. It was the very definition of cool.
The most recent of the famous robots, BB-8, materialized only a couple of days ago, when Star Wars – The Force Awakens, the latest episode of the popular franchise, opened with a loud explosion in movie theaters across the planet on Dec 18th. Having cost U$ 200m to
produce, the movie is expected to collect U$ 2 billion at the box office in total, in addition to more than U$ 32 billion through the selling of merchandise (books, toys, souvenirs, costumes and games) linked to the movie. Undoubtedly, BB-8 is expected to be one of the main forces behind the sales, as it practically steals the show with its cute shape (composed basically of a domed head on top of a ball-shaped body); unintelligible dialect (something akin to the noises made by the hairy Cousin Itt of the successful series The Addams Family) and charismatic personality. BB-8 plays a key role in the story, being charged with the responsibility of looking after the map with directions to the hiding place of the missing Luke Skywalker, the last Jedi. Kids, and everyone else, fall instantly in love with BB-8: it’s on its way to becoming one of the most well-recognized and loved droids in the mythology of the saga.
The topic of robots continues to mesmerize readers, moviegoers and TV viewers. Reality is catching up with fiction fast too, as the field of robotics is advancing in leaps and bounds. We may start losing our jobs to some robots – as a matter of fact that has already begun to happen - or be bossed around by them. On the upside, it will not be surprising if we start dating and marrying replicants, droids or computer operating systems anytime soon.