The concept has been around since, well, long before there was science fiction. It became a major staple of science fiction early on, and it has remained just as popular an idea right up to today, when novels, TV series and major motion pictures are regularly and (fairly predictably) dedicated to them.
No, we’re not talking about alien civilizations… star wars… or even interstellar travel. We’re talking about robots fashioned after humans. And it differs from many of the other popular concepts in science fiction in that, unlike the former concepts which can be debated in terms of possibility, humanoid robots are debatable in terms of sense. Yes, there may be a point or practicality about learning to travel through space or even discovering alien life. But there’s just not much of a point to having humanoid robots.
Possibly the first humanoid robot was built by Yen Shih of China in the 3rd century BC… a life-size, human-shaped dancing figure called an “artificer.” According to recorded accounts, the artificer so convinced the Emperor that it was a real man, that the inventor had to prove its mechanical nature by taking it apart in front of the court. Since then, the occasional humanoid robot would be created, generally for some member of a royal family. The first humanoid robots did simple tasks that were normally assigned to servants or slaves; and to help sell the deceit that these mechanical devices were replacements for servants or slaves, they were fashioned (and often dressed) in the manner of the human chattel.
When science fiction started to develop, therefore, the idea of mechanical devices that could do the tasks of men (or servants, at least), it was nothing new—downright archaic, in fact—but ripe to be taken to the next level. Their depiction in the 1921 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), played by human actors in strange outfits moving in precise, pseudo-mechanical actions, followed not long after by the 1926 movie Metropolis, in which the robot Futura was given a human-looking “skin” and proceeded to inspire riots in the city under the guise of the peace-loving Maria, helped cement the idea of human-looking robots in SF circles.
As science fiction progressed, there have been many humanoid robots, from the clumsy painted-metal creations in old film serials, to the more sophisticated but still clumsy Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet, to the highly-adept creations of Star Trek, I, Robot and A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, and eventually becoming completely human-looking creations that, at some point in the story, would usually tear their skin or need to remove a limb to demonstrate to the humans (or the audience) that they were, in fact, robots. As time passed, fictional robots became more human-looking, more able to perform multiple tasks, and more in demand as service machines for mankind.
And as the machines have come to more and more resemble humans, they have also come to represent more than mere machines; they have been used as literal stand-ins for humans who are employed in dangerous, menial and demeaning tasks. It’s become a standard trope to see robots in stories representing “the Other,” the stereotypical foreigner or stranger in a strange land, generally ridiculed or looked down upon as a simpleton (despite its potential talents and accomplishments). It’s also become commonplace to see humanoid robots replace the doomed soldiers, mindless laborers and dominated sex toys that their masters have decided are inappropriate occupations for real humans.
Today, imagineers and entertainers like to depict robots as the all-purpose tools of choice, more efficient than humans but essentially less than human, which makes them exploitable and disposable… just like slaves and servants have been depicted and used throughout history. And many robot stories have been fashioned around the theme of slavery and the struggle to be recognized as equals to humans. So it’s no wonder that the image of the humanoid robot sticks: It’s the embodiment of the master-slave relationship that some secretly aspire to, some hope to resurrect in some fashion, and others use to draw attention to the inequities of society and human suffering today.
The series HUM∀NS has proven to be a prime example of the modern attitude towards humanoid robots and their considered station in society: Originally depicted as servants, and often used for the most depraved of human activities (rape, incest, murder), the robots known as Synthetics, or synths, gained consciousness and demanded a life of freedom. Humans, however, distrusted them and regularly attacked and killed the synths at will and without threat of punishment. (This attitude was caused by the incidents of synths suddenly and unexpectedly gaining consciousness during everyday tasks, which unfortunately resulted in many accidents and deaths during their moments of initial confusion. Clearly an intentional conceit on the part of the writers to create conflict, but not unlike the way people in power have concocted the supposed “threats” of those not in power, to create division in the real world.) The result was the synths shutting themselves away in internment camps, while humans debated the best way to deal with the problem. Their ultimate solution (by the end of the 3rd season) was, naturally, genocide (roboticide?), leading inevitably to the synths’ fight for freedom as the humans seek to put the synths down once and for all. Modern stories of racial slavery, internment, refugee opposition, collaboration, cooperation and human atrocities are all reflected here.
And most of us are familiar with the androids depicted in the many Star Trek series, particularly Data, the android officer that desires to be like humans. Data’s desire to move beyond his origins and emulate humans is familiar to immigrants and minority populations in a new land, who hope to blend in with the majority to obtain the advantages and benefits that the majority enjoys. And it’s particularly ironic considering Data’s overall skillset is, in most ways, superior to the humans around him; but he still sees himself as inferior to those in the majority, and would give up his superior abilities if it meant he could better fit in with humans. Seemingly well into the future, inequality, social stratification and the plight of the outsider will still be a thing…
The fact that robots’ depiction in SF is very often as a persecuted race, forced to do menial tasks that are considered below the dignity of humans, and fighting for rights and personal freedoms as humans’ equals, tells you all you need to know about how robots are considered in the minds of the writers (and the audience). And look closer: These robots aren’t just human-looking, they are inevitably beautiful, desirable, possess-able. And they are constantly being pursued, captured, treated in ways that supposed good humans would never inflict upon each other, but consider acceptable to inflict upon a less-than-human slave. This is intentional: The writers want the audience to consider robots avariciously, or at least to imagine that others see them that way. The writers want the audiences to think of these robots as another race of humans, similar but inferior to normal humans, and treated as unkindly as real humans often treat each other.
And during all this science-fictional time, the real world has been working for the past centuries developing robots to do real-world tasks… and in the process, discovering and demonstrating that the humanoid form was the absolute least practical design to use for robotics. Through experimentation, testing and application in real-world situations, non-human-looking robots designed to best accomplish a specific set of tasks proved to be faster, more exacting, more efficient and more tireless than human workers, and quickly became iconic of the latter Industrial Revolution.
Over the years, we’ve been aware that humans have indeed lost jobs to automation—but instead of seeing humanoid-looking robots standing next to us at the assembly lines, we’ve seen complex contraptions, often no more than specialized tools mounted on multi-articulated booms, doing the repetitive or exacting work formerly done by humans. We’ve occasionally seen smaller devices, designed for basic tasks in the home or workplace: The spy drama The Americans reintroduced the audience to an actual automated mail carrier that rolled around the FBI offices in the 1970s; and Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running and the Michael Crichton movie Runaway depicted many types of non-humanoid robots, including maintenance bots, drones and household maids about the size of a rolling suitcase that could tend to children, cook, clean, take and deliver messages and maintain a household. A real-world robot recently designed to assist in picking peppers in the field looks amazingly like one of the farm robots depicted in Runaway. None of those robots look remotely human.
Robots in real life all conform to this reality. They may not walk on two legs or have five fingers on each hand, but they do their specific jobs much better than generalist humans can. The future of real robotics does not resemble DaVinci’s Vitruvian Man as much as it resembles an automobile assembly line.
But why aren’t these non-humanoid robots popular in entertainment? There’s no doubt that the limitations of entertainment (and entertainment budgets) have been a significant reason for depicting robots as pseudo-humans over the years: Not only is putting a person in a costume cheaper than building actual robotic characters, but those pseudo-robots can play to the human psyche, used as a source of drama that is more permissible in some cases (in particular, less cruel or horrific because supposed humans aren’t involved) than similar drama between human characters. And despite public perception, putting real (or even imaginary) robots on screen is hard… they still don’t perform well in most circumstances, let alone dramatic moments. I get that. But this trope should be seen for what it is, especially after all this time: A way to specifically depict people, and classes of people, as being sub-human… and therefore subject to acceptable sub-human treatment.
And what of the robots that are intentionally designed to resemble humans? They’ve proven to be incredibly limited in ability, often failing at basic actions like walking or manipulating objects as easily as a human. They are toys, still decades away from being able to perform like a human at even simple tasks. Some progress has been made to provide limited animation to more lifelike dolls, but most of these are intended to replace humans in areas of sexual gratification. Some hope that these dolls can be assigned to sexual predators in order to give them something other than humans to inflict their tastes upon (though there is no proof or data that suggests this idea will work). To date, the most sophisticated human-like robots are sex toys with no ability to resist or escape their owners. Like most science fiction robots, they are Pinocchios… only masquerading as real, and not fooling anybody.
We have been witness to plenty of examples of the real future of robotics, and it’s not as surrogates for the trials of human decency. Real robots are tools designed to perform specific tasks… and that is exactly what they look like. Science fiction robotics diverged from this reality decades ago, and it’s time for science fiction—a genre that prides itself as being intelligent and forward-thinking—to recognize that. We now have the technology to depict or simulate real and realistic robots, and we are now knowledgeable enough about the ramifications of real robotics in our society to examine those issues in our stories. We should be throwing off the archaic tropes of servitude and human domination and looking to the realities and realistic concerns of the modern era.
I guess it’s still debatable whether humanoid robots are science fiction’s dumbest concept, as it has served a significant and useful purpose as SF’s favorite crutch for examining humanity and prejudice over the years. But I think we can agree that it’s not only one of SF’s oldest concepts, but one which most desperately needs updating.
It’s time to turn our backs on humanoid robots; they’re an idea whose time has long past.