Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Rise of the Machines

As most of you know, I'm a long-time fan of science fiction.  Intelligent robots are a huge part of the science fiction universe.  The concept of a robot is very old - accounts and stories relating to mechanical automatons have been found in ancient Greece and the Zhou Dynasty of China.  I suspect the idea is actually much older.  It would not surprise me if soon after man was intelligent enough to figure out the concept of "work", we then tried to figure out a way to have someone or something else do the work for us.  So, in this post, I'm celebrating some of my favorite robots and sentient machines from books, movies and TV.

Caveat:  This is MY list - my opinions.  If you disagree with me because I left your favorite 'bot off the list or I don't have them ranked the same way you would - too bad.  Honestly, I really don't care what you think - go make your own list!

10. T-800 Terminator - First up, in 10th position is that unstoppable metallic man - The Terminator.  I'm actually partial to the inner metal frame version of the T-800, without the Arnold outer-skin.  The skeleton just seems so much more menacing.  You might wonder why I have chosen the original T-800 instead of the later, liquid metal T-1000 or the really hot but deadly female T-X.  The answer is obvious:  because the T-800 ultimately kicked their liquid asses!  Even though the T-800 was the good guy in the second & third movies, there's really not a lot of redeeming qualities to the Terminator - he's your basic killer robot.  Don't look here for any insights about the human psyche - he just kills things.

9.  Andrew Martin - This robot is from a book titled "The Bicentennial Man" by the undisputed king of robot stories, Dr. Isaac Asimov.  It is NOT about the horrible Robin Williams film of the same name.  Asimov created the terms "robotics" & "positronic brain", and in perhaps the greatest concept in all of SF, 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 the 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 Laws.

However, it is not these laws that cause me to include Andrew Martin, in fact, he was not the first Asimov robot with the Three Laws.  No, what sets Andrew Martin apart is that over a period of 200 years, he actually *becomes* human.  He began as a fairly mundane household servant android, but he had something no other robot had - a spark of creativity.  With the help of many organic upgrades and a brilliant legal team, Andrew eventually proved that he was indistinguishable from any other human being.  The court still refuses to declare him legally human because his brain does not age and eventually die.  So, Andrew takes the final fateful step - and asks a robot surgeon to allow him to age and die.  However, the robot surgeon refuses - because to it, Andrew *is* already human and the operation would violate the First Law.  Andrew manages to convince the robot surgeon that he is not human, and finally *does* become human in the eyes of the court.    Of course, to the people who have known Andrew for 200 years, he has ALWAYS been human...

8. Gay Deceiver - Gay Deceiver is not strictly a robot, and she is definitely not homosexual - she is a sentient computer.  She also happens to be the navigation computer in a Ford car/aircraft/spacecraft/time machine/universe translating machine.  Gay Deceiver was the creation of Robert A. Heinlein, arguably the greatest of the Grand Masters of SF, from the book "The Number of the Beast".  She is a very special craft - able to move between universes as well as time and space.  In addition, Gay Deceiver is also a typical RAH female character - smart, funny, sarcastic and she loves to talk dirty.  At the beginning of the story, she is not sentient - but thanks to programming upgrades and some magic from Glinda the Good while visiting Oz, Gay Deceiver becomes much more than just a flying car.

7. H.A.L. 9000 - In 7th spot, we have another sentient computer, the H.A.L. 9000 (Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer) from yet another of the Grand Masters of SF, Arthur C. Clarke in the very well known book "2001: A Space Odyssey" and the outstanding Stanley Kubrick film of the same name.  HAL was a GREAT villain - never showing ANY emotion as it systematically kills the entire crew of the spacecraft, except for a single crewman.  On one level, HAL is just another killer robot - yet its soft, non-emotional, non-threatening manner is anything but evil.  We must also remember that Arthur C. Clarke wrote this story in 1968 - before man had set foot on the moon and only 7 years after Alan Shepard made the first orbit around the Earth.  I think that if I had to choose between fighting the Terminator robot or HAL, I would choose to battle the Terminator - HAL makes the Terminator seem about as smart as a can opener.

6. Gort -  Gort is the robot guardian from the great 1951 film, "The Day the Earth Stood Still".  Hollywood must be completely out of ideas.  It seems like every great old SF movie is being remade with one of the overpaid pretty boy actors and millions of dollars in computer graphics.  The 2008 remake with Keanu Reeves is a horrible film - and what they did to Gort is a travesty.  The *real* Gort was the perfect robot enigma - never uttered a word, never displayed the slightest hint of emotion - he just followed the orders of his master EXACTLY.  Gort was most menacing when he was simply standing completely still.  Nothing the puny humans could do affected him in the slightest, yet a mere glance from Gort was enough to vaporize guns, tanks and men.  Try that Terminator!

5. Lost in Space Robot - Yeah, he *really* got screwed when it comes to his name.  I mean come on!  "Robot"???  The Robinson family was supposed to be a bunch of geniuses, and Robot is the best they could come up with?  OK, offcially, his name is "Robot B9", but "B9" is NEVER used after the first show.  And let's face it, Will Robinson would have been dead a hundred planets ago if it wasn't for the Robot saving his butt by yelling "Danger Will Robinson!!" and waving those weird pincer arms back and forth.  If you have watched the original pilot of Lost in Space, you know that the robot started out as a kill 'bot programmed by Dr. Smith to kill the Robinson family.  However, after Robot failed in his mission, he was completely reprogrammed by Will Robinson and became a sentient robot and trusted friend.  Robot certainly had his weaknesses - he was constantly losing his power pack at inopportune moments, and he was apparently very easy to disassemble - he literally fell to pieces several times.  However, he was still a really cool late 1960s robot - complete with a big flashing light when he talked, a head piece that had curious spinning and moving doo-dads and, best of all, he could shoot lightning out of his claws!  When I was a kid, I wanted a Robot of my own - and if I couldn't have a Robot, I wanted to *be* Robot...

4. Robby the Robot - Robby is the quintessential movie and TV robot.  His first appearance in the pivotal 1956 movie, "Forbidden Planet" set a new standard for all movie robots.  For the first time, a robot was truly a character in the movie - not just a mechanical prop or killer machine.  Robby also made appearances in many other movies and TV shows - easily becoming the hardest working robot in Hollywood history.  Occasionally reverting to a mindless machine, but often with a personality.  His resume of appearances would be the envy of most Hollywood actors.  Ranging from 3 episodes of "Twilight Zone", 2 episodes of "Lost in Space", "The Monkees", "Columbo", "The Love Boat", "Earth Girls are Easy" and many others.  Robby was cool because his "head" appeared to be a bunch of weird relays that clicked and clacked when he was thinking.  Unlike the Lost in Space Robot, Robby had hands with fingers and legs instead of treads.  This proved to be a problem in the Twilight Zone episode "Uncle Simon", when he was pushed down the stairs by Uncle Simon's niece Barbara. If all of this is not enough to make you love Robby, remember that he also got to fondle Anne Francis in 1956!

3. R. Daneel Olivaw - Only Dr. Isaac Asimov has earned two entries on this list - and the reality is that several other Asimov robots could easily have been included.  "R" stands for Robot, and like all of the Asimov robots R. Daneel has the Three Laws built into his positronic brain.  R. Daneel Olivaw appears in many Asimov stories, and is apparently the most recurring of all Asimov characters.  He is the first "humaniform" robot, meaning that he looks human.  In the Asimov universe, this was rare, and was actually outlawed on many worlds.   He is also the first robot detective, and he appears in several stories with his human detective partner, Elijah Bailey to solve crimes involving humans and robots.  The robot detective stories were some of the first Asimov stories I ever read - and I was instantly hooked.  They were like Sherlock Holmes stories, but with robots - how could I not love that!  The crimes R. Daneel and Elijah solved were invariably related to the Three Laws, and it was through careful examination of the facts and how they could still fit the Three Laws that the cases were solved.  The stories also often included other humans who were prejudiced against R. Daneel because of his human form.  His partner, Elijah, was, of course, one of the few humans who treated R. Daneel as a person and not with revulsion.  There is a Star Trek Data-like quality to R. Daneel, as he attempts (and often fails) to apply logic to explain the actions of humans.  It was also through R. Daneel Olivaw that Asimov introduced a new "Zeroth Law of Robotics" that states:  "A robot may not harm humanity, or through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm."  This modification allowed robots to act for the greater good, not just the individual, thus avoiding many of the conflicts that would cause a robot's positronic brain to freeze when forced to choose between two different First Law violations.  R. Daneel Olivaw is truly one of the great robot characters in Science Fiction.  

2. Marvin the Paranoid Android - Douglas Adams is one of my all-time favorite authors.  I absolutely love British comedy and science fiction, and "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" (HHGTTG) is some of the absolute best!  Of course, the books are much better than the 2005 movie, but in my opinion, the star of the movie was the voice of Marvin, who was played by Alan Rickman (Professor Snape from the Harry Potter movies, Die Hard, Galaxy Quest)  Who can resist a depressed robot that mutters under his breath great lines like: "Here I am, brain the size of a planet, and they ask me to take you to the bridge. Call that job satisfaction, 'cause I don't."  Or this famous line: "And then of course I've got this terrible pain in all the diodes down my left side."  Marvin is not really paranoid - that's just the name given to him by Zaphod Beeblebrox, the ex-president of the galaxy and con man.  Marvin is most definitely chronically depressed - and he has often been compared to another great depressed character of literature, Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh.   Because of some unfortunate accidents with time-travel, Marvin claims to be three times older than the universe and 50,000 times more intelligent than humans.  And that is the genius of the Marvin character - to him, the most interesting conversation Marvin has ever had was with a coffee machine.

1. Bender - And so, we finally come to my #1 all-time favorite robot.  It is none other than Bender Bending Rodriguez from Futurama.  I'll bet some of you are wondering how, with all the historic and important robots on this list, could I choose a cartoon robot from a silly TV show as my favorite robot.  It is quite simple - Bender is exactly what I would expect a sentient robot from the far future to be.  He drinks, smokes, gambles, cuts down his friends, steals, lies, chases fembots - in short - he acts just like a human!  Isn't that what being sentient is all about?  He actually thinks - not the pseudo intelligence of the typical fictional robot.  He doesn't try to be like a human, or wish he was human, he is simply who he is - Bender!  That is real sentience - the freedom to think whatever you want and be an individual.  Bender tells the world:  "Bite my shiny metal ass!"

So, there you have it - my top 10 list of all-time favorite robots and sentient computers.  There are also MANY honorable mentions that could have been on this list, but were excluded for one or more reasons:

  • R2-D2 - If he's so smart, why can't he talk??  And C-3PO?  The only reason he even had a job was because R2-D2 couldn't talk.
  • Rosie the Jetson's maid - missed the list by only a hair, I'm pretty sure Alice from the Brady Bunch was modeled after Rosie.
  • Robocop - Very cool guy, and that gun is awesome, but having a human brain is cheating.
  • Data - Poor Brent Spiner, I almost included Data only because I feel sorry for him.  Robots do not get crowsfeet around the eyes.
  • Mechagodzilla - Any robot that can shoot missiles out of his fingers is pretty cool - but unfortunately, Mechagodzilla was not sentient, he was run by remote control by the aliens from the 3rd planet of the black hole.
  • Frankenstein Jr. - An excellent 60s Hanna-Barbara cartoon, with great voice work - but it seems pretty silly to create a 30 foot tall robot that looks like Frankenstein, and then feel the need to give it a secret identity and a mask.
  • Cylon Centurions - The original shiny metal Battlestar Galactica Cylon Centurions with the oscillating red eye were very cool - but I could never figure out why they were needed - the battles took place in space and the ships were always blown into a million pieces - why did they need armored battle droids?  They were also barely sentient - they were dumber than a box of rocks.
  • Daleks - The Daleks of Dr. Who were actually cyborgs, not robots.  As with Robocop, having an organic brain is cheating.

The incredible variety of stories, films and TV shows that include robots proves that humans are fascinated by the concept of artificial life.  Yes, many of them are the simple killbot of the "technology run amok" genre - but not all of them are so simplistic.  There are plenty of examples of robots with real personalities.  Those are the robots I prefer - it's the difference between the robot simply being a prop and actually becoming a character within the story.  And so, to all my electronic and mechanical friends, I salute you!

1 comment:

  1. Very cool list - anyone who remembers R. Daneel & still loves Bender gets an A+ in my book.