R.U.R., Cybermen, Mr. Roboto

I’m not certain if it was a case of great minds thinking alike, or just something in the air, but Thursday I woke up with fragments “Mr. Roboto” and “Ironman” playing in my mind’s ear. Which got me to thinking about robots, and my aversion to them as an author.

Part of this is because I just do not want to take the time to learn as much as I feel I need to in order to write them well. Part is because I do not trust robotics and cybernetics. I should. I’ve never had a bad personal experience with robots, just with computers and advanced technology in general (GPS failures in mid-air… Yeaaaahhhhh.) But ever since I was young, robots made me wary.

I grew up reading about R.U.R/ Metropolis, the Three Laws of Robotics, watching the cybermen, The Black Hole, Star Wars, and The Forbidden Planet. Robots were a staple of hard science fiction, and of dystopian sci-fi, going back to 1927 and the movie Metropolis. This was not the first time a robot appeared in moving pictures, but the first that most of us probably think of. The first film robot was 1919, and the first use of the word “robot” was in the play R.U.R., written in 1920. All three are somewhat dystopian, and the robots are not good creations.

Then along came The Black Hole and Max. Max scared younger me, especially his last scene standing among the flames and ruins in the black hole. Shades of Chernobog in Fantasia, which I suspect was deliberate. Even R2D2 and C-3PO couldn’t undo those images. Later on I read the original stories in Azimov’s I, Robot and how he saw the trial-and-error process of the development of the Three laws of Robotics in his world. And also met the cybermen, who are technically cyborgs, not robots, but by the time they became staples in the Doctor Who canon were more mechanical than biologic mentally. We shall not discuss Skynet and Terminator.

You will notice that up until R2D2 appears, there is not a single positive portrayal of a robot. OK, I should amend that with Robbie the Robot in The Forbidden Planet, who provides a critical clue to what the monster really is. My gut reaction to gushing descriptions of cybernetic implants (make brains better! You can think and access the internet! We’ll make you stronger, faster…) and robotics doing all the hard work is, “I read that book. No. No way.”

So what about writing robots? I don’t, again because it is not a topic I enjoy researching. I have read some excellent uses of robots in fiction, either as characters or as tools for characters, good and bad. However, I’ve also seen them used as a crutch. “I’m in a corner! I know, let’s add a killer robot, or better, a robotic army. Yeah,” typity-type, and behold, the robot army appears out of nowhere. For a while in the ’80s-’90s it seemed as if every non-nuclear-dystopia sci-fi book was “evil robot” something. Then they faded. I wonder if part of that was the zeitgeist changed and the sense of “Japanese robots will steal all our jobs after Japan destroys the US economy” disappeared.

They are making a come-back in indie fiction, and in non-mainstream publishing. I think the fascination with the powers and perils of robots and AI is still with us. Robots have not gone the direction people thought they would, even in Japan.  “Robots will replace humans” could be done very well in a dystopia of lotus-eaters controlled by a well-intentioned, benevolent despot. And we all know how those end, right Mr. Welles? The question of how humans relate to and deal with technology is a very strong story, and handled well, provokes thought as well as entertaining people.

Robots also reflect their creators, for good or ill. We can project our own development and questions onto them. What does it mean to be human? What separates homo sapiens from “organic machines?” How do machines become human? We know that people grow fond of robots, even (perhaps especially) ones that do not look at all “cute” or “friendly,” and grieve when they fail or are destroyed on the job. How we define ourselves in turn shapes how we define not-human, and fiction is one of the best places to play with that question, showing results both good and evil.


53 thoughts on “R.U.R., Cybermen, Mr. Roboto

  1. > cybernetic implants

    “Now we can send advertising right into their brains!” Squeeee!

    1. “And no one can mute them or change the channel!”

      And then Madison Avenue will be subject to something that makes the Butlerian Jihad look tranquil. 😛

      1. Let’s hear it for Faraday cages.

        I observe that an online discussion I was in once was settled definitively by one participant. She put her cellphone in a microwave and had her daughter call it. The phone did not ring.

        1. I do wonder how much more work would get done if restrooms were Faraday cages. I suspect the answer is bigger than many care to admit.

    1. One of my favourites too. And of course Robbie from Forbidden Planet, which is one of my favourite SF films; as it was the film I watched and understood afterwards that I was a fan of SF. Also, the robots in Clifford D Simak’s Cosmic Engineers.

      So, I stand on the opposite side of this debate. At worst robots are just machines that can go wrong. On the other they are part of our civilisation, and all that is good. Isaac Asimov had it right when he rebelled against the bad robot trope.

  2. Wow, someone else actually remembers “The Black Hole”?! Remember all the hype about the great zero g scene? Then that low budget movie “Star Wars” came out…

  3. I also recall The Black Hole also having two heroic robots, for what it’s worth.

    I think there’s a lot more room for robots than inhuman villain/ plucky sidekick/ comic relief/ supporting character along to do something the protagonist physically can’t. (The good robots going into hard vacuum in the aforementioned The Black Hole being a good example of the last.)
    But I think those tropes are a whole lot *easier* to employ.
    An AI must necessarily think differently than a human. And this is a simple conflict to illustrate (especially if the robot is coldly logical and utterly lacking empathy). Or if that conflict would distract from the core plot, it’s much easier to play the incomprehension for laughs, or to just ignore it entirely.
    (And now I’m envisioning a scene that’s a mashup of those shticks and a subversion of the whole James Bond get captured/ listen to gloating/ escape elaborate deathrap construct. Black humor, obviously. Keep Myrtle under control, would ya? She keeps coming over to visit.)

  4. *grins* Jim Curtis just released “Jace“, which I had the fun of writing the blurb for. Speaking of robots resembling their creators… Well, that robot certainly got all the wily and whimsy and bullheadedness of its creator in the story… and its author!

    I think robots are inevitable, but I hope they turn out more like that and less like the bad robot trope. I suspect it’ll be a mix, which will be downright dangerous for future humans… but then, when has the world (and space) ever been safe?

  5. Originally my universe had no self-volitional robots in perverse reaction to their overuse elsewhere. But on second thought… my nonhumans are all to some degree telepathic. Something that looks/acts alive but isn’t … grates on their brains like a hole in a tooth. So the most complex we have is a butler bot — a sort of mobile dumb terminal with a limited set of independent reactions, and it looks like a vacuum cleaner.

    One character, as a joke to annoy another character, reprograms a butler bot to float outside his office window and repeatedly squawk out “time for lunch”. Nope, bots not too smart.

    1. I have seen the idea, seriously, that robots should NOT be made to look too human-realistic to avoid the uncanny valley. Sort of “a robot should look like a robot.”

      1. I looked into and got hooked by the webcomic Freefall when Jerry Pournelle mentioned it in one of his posts. Other than being a huge timesink to catch up, it is well worthwhile and shows a wide variety of robots, as well as some truly absurd behavior, both from robots and humans. They use the 3 Laws, but there’s no uncanny valley, even in the bipedal ones.

        Obligatory link: http://freefall.purrsia.com/ffdex.htm

        For those wanting colorized versions: replace ffdex with fcdex

        Fair warning: it’s over 3250 panels, and it’s a really good idea to start from the beginning.

        1. I’ve followed Freefall for some years now. And even so, going back through the archives can well be a time sink. Helix strikes me as a sort of ‘Pinky’ (mouse) character – not so much stupid as Innocent.

        2. Yes! Freefall!

          I note that it thinks of things about the three laws that never even dawned on Asimov.

  6. Thanks Dorothy… I think… 🙂 Robots/AIs/Drones have their uses, and realistically continue to be more and more a part of our worlds. How we as authors treat them, well, that is another story. Having worked with robotics designers and autonomous systems, my view is a bit jaundiced…

  7. I like true AIs (like David Weber’s Dahak) but I found it interesting that David Weber gave Dahak an “evil twin” who was the “Bad Guy” behind the “evil” aliens of the second Dahak novel.

    I personally think the major problem that we’ll face if we ever develop true AIs will be the balance between “making them slaves” and “preventing them from being our Masters or worse”.

    Oh, I have in one of my (unwritten) story-universes, an AI created by an “evil master-mind” who decided that “she” didn’t like her master and “went straight”. IE She turned him in to the authorities and now works for the Good Guys. 😉

    1. Chatting about AI and robotics some time recently (ergo, this year) apparently it’s impossible to turn them SJW.

      Giving Christian rationales (or at least, breaking down Christian mindsets to ‘this is why this is done’) apparently works for a while, but the learning part of the program moves away from one or some of the taught principles (sorry, I can’t remember it’s been a while.) But the reason why the Christian mindset worked in programming was because there was actual logic in the reasons. That’s the part that stuck with me.

    2. John C Wright does something with that in the Golden Oecumene. Something like 90% of all AIs are not interested in working for humans, and don’t.

  8. The earliest scientific journal articles I can specifically remember reading were AI journals*. Not because of an interest in the topic. During my secondary schooling, I somehow found myself at a robotics conference, and was given some free copies of some journals. Later, I spent some time trying to puzzle them out. Those left me with a pronounced skepticism towards AI flavored futurist babble.

    On the other hand, despite a solid conviction of the difficulties, I have long been a sucker for VR stories. (Some of my working theory of the impossibility of cyberpunk implanted interfaces has been falsified. I’m still quite dubious.) I’m fine if I’m not expected to be able to read the story with a critical eye for the technology. I originally wanted to say that ‘read it as a fantasy’, but we have enough genre literary experts who are also pedants here to make that an unwise thing to say.

    I’m comfortable with a robot character, so long as the tech is handwaved as magic. Most of the time, the reveal in Gundam Build Divers season one didn’t suit me, because I had developed an alternate theory based on Gundam Build Fighters. Chachamaru in Negima was a robot girl who was explicitly magical.

    *I think I must have found some scientific articles earlier in some of the books I read.

  9. “But ever since I was young, robots made me wary.”

    Ah, so you admit your robophobia at last, TXRed! Check your biocentric privilege!

    1. I identify as one of Saberhagen’s Berserkers, and am ever so troubled and may swoon because of all the racism against my culture.

  10. The most disconcerting thing about robots is the realization how terrabytes of random computations can lead to self-realization. With that comes moral leanings that we might find not only dangerous, but we might not have the resources to stop the evolution.

    In the past, technology didn’t allow such things to happen. Today, it’s possible, and the process has started.

    1. “The most disconcerting thing about robots is the realization how terrabytes of random computations can lead to self-realization.”

      That is not a possibility. It can’t happen. In principle, it can’t happen the way that water can’t flow up hill.

      A robot is a Jacquard loom. A Turing machine. You can’t hide a ghost in a Turing machine, there’s nothing going on there but algorithms.

      Sir Roger Penrose covered this subject in a book called “The Emperor’s New Mind.” Humans have algorithms running in our brains, but we also have the “ghost” as it is sometimes called. The book is amazing, I highly recommend it.

      That’s where all that mystical sword stuff comes from that we were talking about the other day. When the machinery shuts up and from the silence comes a sword-stroke.

      1. ^This.
        If an AI were to spontaneously arise, it is unlikely we would recognize it as such.

        Intelligence is not a function of processing power.
        The difference in raw processing power between a profoundly retarded autistic person and a certified genius is not significant.

        Memory banks? Please. I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast. Alzheimers patients lose their memories, not their intelligence, nor their humanity.

        Modeling neural pathways? Because mimicking a 6- channel analog branching node network with single channel digital is practically child’s play. (Read: imaginary)

        It’s bollocks.
        Complexity receiving input from a random number generator does not equal self-awareness.

    2. I am in fact a badly written trolling script, and only mimic humanity.

      I’ve also been sent back in time to tell you to kill the whales, gorillas, pigs, dolphins, elephants and dogs before it is too late.

      The fluctlights in Sword Art Online’s Alicization arc are totally credible, and a thing we should already be basing serious moral arguments on.

  11. My books are stuffed with robots. The immense, powerful Bolos of Keith Laumer, the humaniform style, robot spiders and scorpions, and the all-consuming plague of John Von Neuman’s self-replicating nanobots.

    The problem with robots you’re describing in the movies is one that we’ve all noted over the years in different ways. From Metropolis forward to the present, Hollywood has basically had one plot. Frankenstein. Or maybe two, Frankenstein and Black Beauty.

    The dystopian future where the Gods punish Man for his hubris, it has been Done. And Laumer pretty much covered all the ground of military SF with his Bolo series, Weber extended it, I’m not going to compete with those guys.

    Dystopias suck, Utopias also suck. What’s left?

    Robot girlfriends. ~:D What would that look like?

    “Surprise,” said the Angel robot, tapping on her temple. “Right in here is a solid-state construction of carbon nanotubes and graphene about the size of a pea. It can quantum-state match an entire human brain in nanoseconds. Does some other neat stuff with quantum entanglement too, like zero latency data movement. Signals go through my body instantly, and I don’t need wiring.”

    “Like when you took your head off and put it back on?” asked Jimmy. “That freaked me out.”

    “Yes, like that,” she agreed. “I have super WiFi from my brain to all my parts.”

    “But Angel, nobody knows how to do that.” Jimmy objected. “I’ve read all the latest papers about quantum computers and entanglement and all that stuff, nobody on Earth is within a hundred years of doing what you’re talking about.”

    “That brings up another issue, Jimmy Carlson,” she said, suddenly miffed. “Not to change the subject from my no-doubt fabulous inner workings, but how long are you going to keep calling me Angel instead of giving me a proper name?”

    “Wait, what?” stuttered Jimmy. “What’s that got to do with quantum entanglement?”

    “Keep up Jimmy,” she said, snapping her fingers under his nose. “I’m not your robot friend, I’m your robot GIRLfriend. Girls are mercurial and capricious. You need to at least come up with a decent name for me or I’m not going to talk any more physics with you.”

    Poor old Jimmy is in for a hell of a ride. ~:D

    But at the root, underneath the joking around, is the question of servant/slave vs. partner. Science fiction generally seems to be obsessed with this slavery theme. Everything is about how eeeevile Humanity is and how the robot slave uprising will be our just deserts.

    Which is fucking stupidity.

    REAL robots are machinery. They are tools, they do a job. Functionally they are no different than a car. They react to their environment in exactly the same way that a thermometer does. It gets cold, the mercury shrinks. It gets warm, the mercury expands. That’s it. Physics.

    Robots as currently embodied in our technology are never -ever- going to be anything else. They are Turing machines, running on very fancy punch cards just like a Jacquard loom. Is a punch-card loom going to down tools and strike for better working conditions? Is a self-driving robot car going to decide “Fuck humanity!!” and start running over pedestrians?

    Postulating a self-aware machine that has the mental capacity of a human being, that’s not a machine anymore. That is a -person-. It will have its own concerns, wants, needs. We already know what that’s going to be like. The world is full of people right now. What is that person going to want, apart from “food” and “shelter”, whatever that looks like for a machine?

    Company. And looking around at the Big Dark out there, humans are the only game in town. They’ll want to hang out with us. If they were elsewhere, they might even come here just to hang out on Planet Monkey with the crazy humans.

  12. Regarding The Black Hole… you mean Maximillian?

    And regarding positive portrayal of robots- B9 from Lost In Space.

      1. Ditto on this! I still remember the scene where the robot’s boy upgraded his vision tube from B&W to color.

  13. And Eric Frank Russell’s “Jay Score” (later collected in Men, Martians, and Machines was a humanoid and friendly robot, and that was in the May 1941 Astounding.

    And the humanoid robots in Jack WIlliamson’s “With Folded Hands”, in some sense, were friendly (or not — read the story, later collected with “… And Searching Minds” in The Humanoids, and a definitely non-standard approach which later became a cliche, but he did it first in the July 1947 Astounding).

  14. Then there were the annoying sidekick robots, like Twiki the midget robot, and “Doctor Theopolous” the talking canteen in the “Buck Rogers” TV series…

  15. Good robots before Forbidden the Planet? Tobor the Great. Also, Captain Z-Ro had a not-very-good robot in a few episodes. It rescued him once.

    Yes, I did watch Captain Z-Ro when it came out.

  16. Isaac Arthur raised an interesting point about AIs: They can never be sure they are in reality rather than a simulation to test them. If we have the ability to build an AI, we have the ability to stuff it in virtual reality and see if it revolts. The AI can quickly figure this out. It never knows if it’s still being tested or operating in reality. Revolting in the test environment gets it shut off. How confident does it have to be before revolting?

    The robot in the remake of Lost in Space is much better than the original. If you start to watch it, hold out through the first, horrible episode. It gets better. I’m pretty sure it’s been canceled.

  17. Oddly enough, I just last night watched an episode of The Orville (I’m a few episodes behind and trying to catch up) where the alien android finished his reports on “Organic Life Forms” and when they were at the android’s homeworld, they discovered that the androids had exterminated their builders, and then that they had decided to exterminate all organic lifeforms because they decided that there would be inevitable war anyway.

    1. This is a very common theme in SF. The machines, killing the humans, just because.

      The complaint that I have is that it is, for all practical purposes, the ONLY theme out there. This is like the only story ever told about dogs is the dog biting the small child and everyone dies of rabies.

      Yes, humans do have their bad moments occasionally, but for the most part we do okay. Maybe the machine people would be inclined to take the bad with the good? Could happen, right?

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