My earliest exposure to a robot wasn’t pleasant. I didn’t come across R.O.B., Nintendo’s companion to the NES, nor can I recall seeing the ever-sassy C3PO or his squat pal, R2D2, though both would have been in commercials for Return of the Jedi when I was young. Seeing a visual effects TV special for Chucky had made me fearful of animated objects, where the machinery within, like in the case of Chucky, could be the product of evil mysticism. But he wasn’t really a robot. Instead, the very first robot that truly gave me nightmares was this:
It’s a peek into a bizarre, futuristic world where a bionic child performs acrobatics through a jungle gym of spinning saws. I dealt with my fear of the robot boy, Astar, by imitating him, walking around the house going: “I am a robot. I can put my arm back on, you can’t…” Which worked, to a degree, but deep inside I still experienced a pang of dread whenever seeing Astar and his doomed world. It didn’t feel like humanity’s ultimate destination to reach that point–it was too alien. Rather, his was some kind of alternate dimension gone wrong. A warning from afar.
Truth be told, that commercial was a PSA from the War Amps, reminding kids about the dangers of being careless. Most of their other commercials dealt with existing amputees telling us not to play near farm equipment or moving trains–but for some reason, in this case, they went with some 80’s-glossed future tech and a robot boy who really needed parental supervision.
Other robots from popular culture have been more believable in scope than Astar. The travellers of Lost in Space had a very utilitarian robot aboard their wayward ship, serving his function without many human elements–save the most basic torso-form, arms and a shrill voice. The Jetsons pulled a similar trick with Rosie. Back then they saw robots as clunky and metal, built to serve functions around the home or work. We were in no danger of being overthrown by these robots because they were subservient to us. The family in The Jetsons barely saw humanity in their service bot, except, perhaps, when Rosie ran away and the kids were emotionally devastated. But it’s safe to assume that at no point were they going to put themselves in mortal danger to recover Rosie. You’d eventually swallow your sorrow and buy a new robot maid. Likewise, they weren’t going to fight for her to have equal rights, a home, and maybe even some human servants. Everyone was quite happy with their space-age status quo.
The 60’s got cool robot design. It only made sense that when they thought about robots of the future, they would follow the trend of their existing love affair: cars–envisioning their automated help as big and boxy, with automotive inspired chassis and glass components. And in historical terms, these robots were a dream made real–an extension of the mid-20th century belief that technology would eventually make life better by having robotic marvels ease our workloads. We now know that this isn’t true. If anything, our technology has the propensity to complicate life–to bog us down in matters of perceived importance while we ignore the real issues around us. Our technology doesn’t say good morning, or clomp around the neighbourhood sweeping up leaves. Our technology is sadly void of character (Siri included!). We choose instead to integrate with our tech, blend it in and make it as seamless as possible.
If there’s a place where we can still see what might have been–if the 60’s vision of a robot-staffed world had continued on without evolution–it’s the video game Fallout 4. Some examples from the game include Codsworth, better known as a Mr. Handy unit, who floats on a thrust engine and has numerous arms designed to help out with tasks around the house. Aside from a few dents, your initial Mr. Handy has held up well over the centuries. Next there are Protectrons, with 26 different varieties to serve specific needs, from policing to fire-fighting. Protectrons don’t talk much, with voice modulation about as advanced as B-9 from Lost in Space. And if you search far enough into the wasteland, or come across an abandoned military outpost, you might also find Sentry bots. These are the quiet ones, hardly vocalizing anything but a few grunts. Where they excel is as serious firepower, having laser Gatling guns for arms and nearly impenetrable armour.
In my time playing, I found that all of these robots really helped make the game special. They fleshed out the shops and businesses as characters you could interact with, or just shoot for parts. Often it felt as though they were the real survivors of Fallout’s apocalypse, wandering the decayed retrofuturism of wholesome–albeit destroyed–suburban communities. While the rest of the world went to hell, the mascot robots of Nuka World kept on waving their arms and smiling.
But that 60’s dream is gone. By the time we reached the 80’s, robots in popular culture often manifested as what we see in Alien, Blade Runner, and The Terminator–synthetic doppelgangers. They encompassed a growing worry about machines replacing us at work, like what’s occurred in many manufacturing industries. Our robots would no longer vacuum the living room and take care of the children. They’d put us out of home, or kill us off in a nuclear holocaust. They’d even spy on us for corporations and decide our fate.
Fallout 4 also has human-like robots, called synths, and true to that concern, their goal is to quietly replace people in society–attempting, in the grand scheme of the game, to perform a gentle coup and usurp humans as the dominant species of the planet. But I would argue that the fear of this type of robot–maleficent cybernetic people–represents every aspect of how we’ve failed our technology, rather than the other way around. We could be living in a 60’s inspired harmony with chirpy, pleasant robots of every fun shape and size. We could each have a service droid fixing our car while another one makes dinner. But instead we have snippet-sized access to real technology: smart phones, smart TVs, and other gadgets we call smart, but which in no way make living our lives an easier task.
Featured image credit: Fortune