One of the reasons I started this blog is insomnia, not that I sit bleary eyed at my keyboard dispensing my wisdom. It is because I lie awake for a few hours most nights and ideas relentlessly bombard my mind. Something’s gotta give or my head is likely to explode.

Last night was no exception and the thing which was exercising my not insignificant intellect was, as I think you may have guessed, Robots. But it didn’t let up with enough for one post. It went on and on. So, pitying those of you who read my Blog I have decided to split it into 2 parts.

So, Robots. They have been around since someone had the idea that a machine with a brain similar to ours but a much stronger body was a damn good idea. The Jewish legend of the Golem has much in common with the modern idea of a Robot. It was described as superior to man in strength and intelligence, and needed to be unmade in order that he would not overpower his masters. This has echoes in much modern fiction where the machines break the control man has over them.

The word ‘robot’ was first used to denote an artificial humanoid in a 1921 play R.U.R. by the Czech writer, Karel Čapek . This is not a learned treatise on the history of stored program computers, artificial intelligence and so on. Suffice it to say that the word Robot means something different to everyone. I guess the earliest robot I have come across personally is in Fritz Laing’s ‘Metropolis’. It begins it’s existence as an asexual metal humanoid, but is given the appearance of the heroine. Ahead of it’s time as it was, I can’t recommend it, it is a mishmash of Communism, capitalism and religion. Technically it is excellent for it’s time but I have never really managed to sit through it. Apart from this film there are so many references to Robots in fiction that I would be writing this for weeks if I listed them all. If you wish to see a comprehensive list it is HERE.

As this is a personal journey into my past I will stick with what I have experienced. Of course anyone who is of my vintage will remember (At least in the UK!) the many and varied Robots in the early incarnations of Dr Who. It was from the playground discussions in the late 60’s and early 70’s, and my voracious appetite from knowledge which allowed other bits of Robot knowledge to filter into my brain. I will deal with the fictional machines of my younger days and later in part two, this is just my introduction as to what constituted a Robot to my younger self. The next thing to grab my attention was the three laws of Robotics posited by Isaac Asimov in his story ‘Runaround’.

Isaac Asimov

  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 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.
He added a fourth and overriding law later..
0. A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.
There was a homage to this in the Film ‘I, Robot’ which I will cover in part 2. These laws have been accepted and adhered to by many writers, though in my opinion it was naïve to assume, given cheap mass production and technology good enough to produce millions of Robots, that the military would not be queuing up with handfuls of tax money to purchase an army of them. Such laws forbidding the Robot to be put to military use would never be accepted or indeed financially viable. It might be acceptable in a domestic Robot but this would be a tiny part of the sales of the company producing them. Still it was fiction and Asimov probably didn’t expect it to ‘Go Viral’ as modern parlance has it.
It may be that this idealised, utopian theory has been responsible for the modern concept of the Robot as a friendly helpmate. Many robots in fiction are evil but when one features as a major Character it is usually portrayed as a purely mechanical device which displays human traits. Such is our conceit that we are basically noble creatures, the machine is only allowed to show these noble human traits. It may fail and it may agonise over it’s failure, but ultimately it will overcome it’s error and emerge stronger emotionally. A  Robot will selflessly sacrifice itself in order to save a human or two.
Of course this is nonsense, a Robot is a computer controlled device and computers cannot develop emotions, nor will they be able to for some time. As yet they are not even truly intelligent. My wife Bot is convinced that all her tech has it in for her but I don’t think so.
This, then is the fiction. The same old evil human or machine being comprehensively trounced by the noble selfless Robot. It really is that simple, it is Good v Evil but now the evil can reside in a mechanical shell. Let’s face it evil is as impossible in a mechanical device as nobility. The uses to which the Robots are put by Humans can be good or evil but not the Robots themselves.
Of course the idea of a bipedal humanoid Robot has been almost impossible until recently and such things are still seen as a novelty to entertain TV audiences. The mechanisms used by Humans to stand upright are many and varied and have developed over millions of years. They are only now starting to be small enough to be used in this kind of technology. It will be many more years before the humanoid of fiction will be reality if at all.
|nstead, the machines which may lead to intelligent Robots are still automata as pictured above, designed simply to do boring and repetitive tasks more cheaply than humans. They are controlled by simple computers programmed not to be intelligent, but to do a series of actions well.
It may be, one day, that small armed flying Robots may take themselves to a target, select a missile according to the nature of the terrain and launch it, but for the moment they are largely controlled by pilots at a computer screen far away from the action. Autonomous flight is starting to be used and improving all the time so the idea of a pilotless craft may not be so far off.
Oh but how boring and banale this all is compared to the tales of noble, friendly Robots who look like us that the Junior Bot loved so much.
In Part 2……How do fictional Robots fit with our self image, how believable are they and will we ever see their like in reality? The Lifebot’s guide to the Robot in Film and TV.