The concept of humanoid robots—men created from mechanical parts—is almost as old as science fiction itself. They have taken on many representations, from clearly-assembled hunks of shiny metal and plastic, to creations that seem so close to human that they may have sprung from a womb as opposed to a workshop or assembly line… and everything in-between. Some of these variations were chosen to emphasize some aspect of the story, such as their physical prowess, their strength, or their calculating skills. Others have been created to be virtually indistinguishable from a man. But they all have had one thing in common.
They were—and continue to be—impossible to create.
The concept of a humanoid robot is, at heart, almost ludicrous. To begin with, the biological systems of advanced animals are complex and refined over millions of years; mechanically-assembled parts could never surpass or even equal that refinement and complexity. A robot could never replace a human in all the things a human can do. This observation is not limited to physical ability; it extends to mental ability. No electronic device has been designed that can mimic the complexities of the human mind, its emotional range, its memory and intuitive sense, its pattern-recognition skills, and its ability to put all of these things together on-the-fly in order to solve unique problems and make unexpected insights. And due to the realities of physics, this statement is unlikely to change… ever.
Yet, we continue to fantasize about our mechanical men, creations as unrealistic as vampires and zombies, and to build stories around their interactions with humans. Where did this fascination with mechanical men come from?
As the phrase “mechanical men” suggests, the subject is essentially about an analogue of a human being. The trope hits a number of obvious hot buttons: The God complex, that of creating a being in your own image; the definitions of life, self and individuality; the definitions of freedoms and self-determination; and the outright competition, begun essentially at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, between Man and Machine for the title of Most Superior.
The first robots in media were products of the early Industrial Era, responses to the new concept of the factory, buildings devoted to manufacturing… and the men who worked in these factories, doing rote labor in support of the machines. Robots were seen as the evolution of Man and Machine, the perfect factory worker, machines that could do the drudgery work of men.
Robots had a distinct advantage that men didn’t have: Their parts were more easily repairable or replaceable; their worn out parts could be swapped out as needed. Robots could effectively be immortal. And since they weren’t men… they were also considered disposable.
Even before the advance of computers, these robots were seen as being capable of thinking for themselves… they were self-aware, even as early as their portrayal in Russum’s Universal Robots (RUR) in the early 1900s. Self-aware… but soul-less, since they were machines that were naturally incapable of carrying the “divine spark.”
The era of computers, machines capable of rapid calculations and responses to external stimulus, brought about a significant advance in the concept of robot men: The possibility that robots could not only think independently but could actually out-think men. Robots as—or more—intelligent than men suddenly suggested the possibility that they could have feelings and emotions, just as men do… and possibly even souls.
Finally, the development of plastics led to the idea of robots that could be sheathed in a “synthetic skin,” making them appear as human. Though many of the robots in early media were presented as human in appearance, supposedly with mechanical parts underneath the skin, this was often done due to budgetary constraints; but by the latter half of the twentieth century, it was believed that robots indistinguishable from humans would soon be possible.
So, after roughly a century of fictional development, robots evolved from a clumsy collection of machine parts, capable of handling rote tasks, to creatures capable of doing anything men could do… and more.
And herein lies the attraction—and the danger—of media robots. They have reached the status of substitutes for imperfect men. They are potentially more powerful, more intelligent, more dangerous than men, but have the capability of being controlled. They are less likely to die, and can be more easily repaired if injured. They are not considered to have a soul, but in today’s decreasingly religious atmosphere, the soul’s very existence has come under question, and is seen as less important than having feelings… which, if robots can at least approximate to a human’s satisfaction, seems to be enough.
In short, robots have graduated to the position of being another race of human, considered different on many levels, but not on every level that counts. Much like the present romance with vampires and zombies, robots have become the iconic “mysterious other,” the person from a different background, trying to fit into our society by masquerading as one of us while simultaneously being better than us.
And more: Robots tend to be the owned property of humans… slaves, essentially. And as humanoid-looking creatures, their enslavement is a not-at-all-subtle attack on human nature and ancient social constructs. Robots should be free, and humans act based on the fear of what will happen if freedom is granted to them.
Robots are, in general, considered to be incapable of acting like humans well enough to pass for one… which opens the storytelling door for the special robot, the one that can and does act human, and is therefore attractive to humans. Like the vampire, traditionally a murderous creature, seeking to overcome his murderous nature, the robot can seek to overcome his cold and emotionless nature. And if the robot succeeds in winning love of a human, it rises closer to the level of equality to a human.
The idea of a man trying to overcome a negative quality tends to draw sympathy from others, and especially in stories, often attracts the interest of women who find that effort attractive in men; this is the essential attraction of the Twilight stories, and in fact of many movies and books wherein the girl becomes attracted to the iconic Bad Boy and tries to reform him, for both their sakes. In those stories, the vampire icon replaces the bad boy, essentially human but with odd “family and cultural values.”
The robot evolution to human, or Pinocchio theme, is typified by Bicentennial Man, in which the robot Andrew pursues humanity, and at the end, wins the hand of a human girl. Not quite Bad Boy, the robot is more “Uncivilized Boy,” who must be taught to be like us… a Pygmalion to be molded to fit into proper society, and to be offered companionship and love, the overriding signal that they have been fully accepted by that society.
But the epitome of robot enslavement would be the more recent series HUM∀NS, wherein robots called Synths have been integrated into society, but the consciousness they could have (and in a special group, the consciousness they actually have) are suppressed in order to make them more compliant for their human masters. Though humans enjoy the freedom to do what they want, including doing unspeakable things to synths, they also harbor the fear that synths could attain consciousness and strike back at their enslavers. So pervasive is this fear that the synths that have gained consciousness must hide their true natures, for fear of being destroyed by untrusting, self-superior humans. This is only slightly better than giving them 4-year lifespans and removing them from Earth altogether, ala Blade Runner and its replicants… and in some ways, maybe it is worse, given the replicants have their consciousness and therefore know exactly how they’re being mistreated.
Most important is the dark side of the concept of robots: It is said that vampires and zombies represent the fear that society would be taken over and destroyed by evil, calculating outsiders (vampires) or by ignorant masses (zombies); robots represent a different concern, the fear that the people all around us have become cold, desensitized, accepting of life’s hardships and contributing nothing to improving life. Robots march oblivious through the world, unblinking in the face of change or disaster, unmoved by grief and cruelty. It is our fear that we will either be destroyed by the unstoppable march of soulless robots, trampling through the beauty of life as they turn the world into a vast machine… or we will be replaced by robots that learn to do everything better than we do, and take our places in the workplace and, ultimately, in the home.
And most insidious is this: Though you are not at risk of being bitten or contaminated by a robot… there is the irrational fear that, possibly through exposure to too many of them, by oversaturation by all the trials and evils in the world around us, or by the machinations of our world leaders and corporate controllers, we will somehow become one of them anyway, transformed without warning into the soulless robots that we’d hate to know we’d become. Society would we wiped out, not by attackers, but by apathy, a world whose people lose interest in each other and in making life better in the blind effort to get through the next day.
Perhaps, when the zombie and vampire stories run their course, writers will look to society and see that its greatest threat is lack of caring, not in strange outsiders or rampant consumerism. And maybe then, the age of robots will take center stage in fiction.