It’s Been 100 Years and the Robots Still Haven’t Taken Over
From Karel Čapek to Isaac Asimov, a Brief History of Machine Anxiety
The 20th-century symbol of ambivalence toward technology was the robot, invented in its modern form by the Czech playwright Karel Čapek. The word “robot” comes from the Czech robota, meaning “forced labor,” a term that derives in turn from rab meaning “slave.” Initially this referred to programmed machines that released factory workers from repetitive toil but simultaneously threatened their livelihood, a comment on Henry Ford’s moving assembly line, introduced in 1913 for the mass production of automobiles.
Subsequently reinvented in increasingly humanlike forms as androids, with autonomous thought and intelligence, robots combined the lure of increased power and freedom for their owners with the threat that, like Frankenstein’s creature and countless earlier mechanical creations in fiction, they would rebel against the controls imposed on them and dominate or destroy their masters. As an extension of this filmmakers have evolved a recurrent scenario of the development of a master race of highly intelligent robots, programmed or autonomously motivated to take over and destroy the human race. The Mechanical Man, The Terminator, Runaway, RoboCop, the Replicators in Stargate, the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica, the Cybermen and Daleks in Doctor Who, The Matrix, Enthiran, and I, Robot all play on, and exacerbate, such fears.
As presented in fiction and film, robots are essentially hybrids, combining the apparent intelligence of humans with the functionality and programmed obedience of machines. They epitomize efficiency, rationality, absence of emotion, objectivity, and the unswerving pursuit of a predetermined end regardless of the consequences. They became a powerful metaphor for technological culture itself, “the paradoxical status of the human body within the technological framework of modern society” and the fear of technology invading and subsuming human identity. As such, robots and, later, androids have been used in fiction and film to indicate and explore the values and attitudes of their scientist-creators. In most cases they signify their designers’ hubris, their obsession with controlling their world absolutely, and their cultivation of efficiency as an ultimate goal. Robotics engineers, it is suggested, have a close affinity to their mechanical creations because they themselves have lost their humanity.
The first in-depth literary study of the impact of robots and the motives of their creators was Karel Čapek’s seminal play R.U.R. (1921), which concerns the effect on society of robots designed to relieve their masters of toil, leaving them free to enjoy endless leisure. It is this feature—their suggested potential for liberating humanity from the burden of heavy and repetitive tasks—that has contributed to their continuing ambiguous status as objects of both desire and fear, an ambiguity that, as we have seen, has beset science itself from its origins in alchemy. Čapek also explores the motives of the Rossums, uncle and nephew, who have created the firm Rossum’s Universal Robots, designated by the play’s title. Having accidentally discovered a substance that behaves like protoplasm, the elder Rossum, a physiologist, proceeds to experiment with making artificial beings. He thus exemplifies the hubris that leads scientists to believe that reason (science) is sufficient to create anything required. He is eventually killed by one of his creatures, but not before he has produced a manlike being, in modern terms, an android. Like Franken- stein and Moreau, Rossum, whose name derives from the Czech word rozum (reason), was driven by a desire to usurp the role of God, an intention about which he was more explicit than his predecessors. He “wanted to become a sort of scientific substitute for God. He was a frightful materialist, and that’s why he did it all . . . to prove that God was no longer necessary.”
The younger Rossum, eager to exploit this discovery commercially, and impatient with his uncle’s inefficient methods, has simplified the design, omitting as superfluous any aesthetic and emotional elements. Domin, the manager of the firm, explains: “The Robots are not people. Mechanically they are more perfect than we are, they have an enormously developed intelligence, but they have no soul” (my italics). Domin himself cherishes a utopian vision of a world without work, but it is apparent that this ideal is also strongly tinged with hubris: “Man shall have no other aim, no other labour, no other care than to perfect himself . . . He will be Lord of creation.”
Čapek is also concerned to show how this philosophy of scientific materialism affects those who espouse it. The scientists at the Rossum factory are almost indistinguishable from each other and from the robots, for they too have become standardized, as though fresh from the assembly line. They are among the first and most stylized symbols of the anonymity and disappearance of individuality in a scientific, industrialized society, where people are interchangeable, defined only by the tasks assigned to them. Eventually the robots revolt against their exploitative, ineffectual masters and kill every human being except one, who is spared only on condition that he work to rediscover the lost formula for creating the robots. The parallel with Frankenstein, begged by the monster to create a mate for him, becomes clear as the play evolves to show that the reckless pursuit of science as an end in itself leads inevitably to the actual destruction of humanity, a humanity that, Čapek suggests, has been effectively sterile and symbolically dead for years.
R.U.R. became the prototype for a succession of robot stories and films, in most of which the scientist-inventors, like those in Čapek’s play, lose control over their creations. The first, appearing in the same year as R.U.R., was the Italian science fiction film L’uomo meccanico (The mechanical man) (1921), in which a scientist creates a humanoid robot (really an android) with super- human speed and strength, controlled remotely by a machine. Ironically the scientist himself loses control of his robot to a criminal gang that employs the mechanical man to facilitate crimes before their leader is electrocuted by a short circuit in the controls.
The first film to associate robots with the mad, evil scientist stereotype was Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), based on the novel of the same name by Thea von Harbou. Rotwang, the deranged and obsessive scientist of Metropolis, has been called “the most influential scientist in the history of the cinema,” largely because of the film’s powerful visual symbolism. Metropolis is identified with both an ancient, Gothic house and the machinery of a bleak, urban wasteland depicted as an expressionist, futuristic city of 2026 characterized by skyscrapers where the “managers” live in luxury while the workers toil underground, running the machines and furnaces that power the city. This “Raygun-Gothic” decor was to become the prototype of mad scientists’ laboratories in cinema throughout the century, while Rotwang himself, with his disordered mane of white hair, the high forehead associated with the mad inventor, an artificial, clawed right hand, and eyes “smouldering with a hatred close to madness,” is both the descendant of the obsessed alchemist and the ancestor of Dr. Strangelove. In his art deco laboratory, complete with industrial machinery and flashing lights, Rotwang creates not a male homunculus but a female robot, Maria, by imprinting the likeness of a human Maria onto a machine and then bringing her to life as an erotic and destructive woman, reminiscent of the beautiful automaton Olimpia in Hoffman’s Der Sandmann (1814), also created by a mad and vengeful scientist, Mea of La femme endormie, and Frankenstein’s monster.
Traditionally robots had been creatures of masculine power and strength created by males independent of women, but the robot Maria emphasizes woman as Other, allowing Rotwang to claim power over both women and the process of human reproduction. As Andreas Huyssen remarks, “By creating a female android, Rotwang fulfils the male phantasm of a creation without mother; . . . he produces not just any natural life, but woman herself, the epitome of nature.” As the evil counterpart of the good human Maria, who tries to quell the rebellion of the workers and who enacts her virgin mother status by collecting up their children to save them from impending destruction, the evil robot Maria is programmed to destroy the workers of Metropolis. When she is carried off by the rebels and burned at the stake like a witch (also an uncontrollable female Other), Rotwang, his life and meaning invested in the now-destroyed mechanical Maria, symbolically falls to his death from the cathedral roof. The moral is heavily underlined: evil scientists and their dangerous creations must be destroyed, especially if that creation is a sexually aggressive female who flouts the rules of society as robot Maria does during her erotic striptease in a brothel.
Another and more contentious variation of the amoral robot maker is Zapparoni, the scientist-creator of Ernst Jünger’s Gläserne Bienen (1957), translated as The Glass Bees (1961). This Prospero-like figure creates aesthetically perfect glass bees, tiny, sophisticated automata that, in their functionality and craftsmanship, combine technology and art, prefiguring the evolution during the 1980s of the powerful microchip. Symbolically, Zapparoni creates for himself a complete culture, endowing his robots not only with physical being but also with the ability to create other robots, a modern version of the “philosopher’s stone” the narrator thinks, emphasizing the connection between Zapparoni and the magus-alchemist Albertus Magnus, whose works Frankenstein studied.
At first Zapparoni’s world appears utopian, a landscape of marvels, both functional and aesthetic, offered by technology; but through his narrator, the retired military man Captain Richard, Jünger expresses reservations about Zapparoni’s pose of godlike detachment from his world, living in happy ignorance and refusing to accept accountability for a Brave New World society. In 1995, on his hundredth birthday, Jünger commented: “Ours is the time of cybernetics, when machines wait on the threshold of thought and human beings are treated as components of the machine-world which can be cast aside when they are no longer needed. In such a period, what of ethics?” In Jünger’s analysis, Western society’s complacent acceptance of the gifts and controls of technology gives a new and sinister meaning to Bacon’s dictum “knowledge is power.” The serene and amoral Zapparoni may be even more dangerous to humanity than a recognizably evil dictator. Jünger’s novel raises questions that were to be explored more explicitly by Donna Haraway in “A Cyborg Manifesto” (1991) regarding the blurring, possibly the erasure, of boundaries between animate and inanimate, between cyborgs and humans.
With few exceptions fictional robots are portrayed as a threat to humanity, raising the question of who controls the robots, but in stark contrast to the many dystopian narratives of such dangers, Eando Binder’s science fiction short story I, Robot (1939) introduces an interesting twist in that the moral roles are reversed. The robot Adam Link, created by scientist Dr. Charles Link, is educated, self-aware, and desirous of serving a human master. However, when Dr. Link is accidentally killed, Adam is blamed and pursued by armed men intent on destroying him. At first he retaliates but then, having found and read a copy of Frankenstein, he understands the fear and revulsion he evokes, rejects revenge, and, after writing his confession, prepares to self-destruct. Binder’s story was highly innovative for its time in breaking away from the Frankenstein cliché, and its popularity led to a series of Adam Link stories by Binder, which were later adapted for the American TV series The Outer Limits (1963–65).
Isaac Asimov acknowledged the influence of Binder’s concept on his robot stories: “It certainly caught my attention. Two months after I read it, I began ‘Robbie,’ about a sympathetic robot, and that was the start of my positronic robot series. Eleven years later, when nine of my robot stories were collected into a book, the publisher named the collection I, Robot over my objections. My book is now the more famous, but Otto’s story was there first.” Asimov’s many stories about robots and the reactions of their scientist “minders” provide a striking contrast to the prevailing view in fiction about the effect of “intelligent” machines. As a biochemist and author of a large number of books on popular science, Asimov was scornful of what he called the “Frankenstein complex” and remained fundamentally optimistic about technological progress. Like H.G. Wells he saw it as relieving humanity of “those mental tasks that are dull, repetitive, stultifying and degrading, leaving to human beings themselves the far greater work of creative thought in every field from art and literature to science and ethics.”
Asimov conceded the possibility of danger from robots and computers only for those who feared change and had, in effect, already abrogated their autonomy in a technological age, essentially becoming like the machines they attacked. This is most apparent in his story “Profession” (1957), set in a future world where most of the inhabitants, fearful of change, have had their brains wired and programmed to act in a routine fashion so as to avoid the agony of decision making. Like the citizens of E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” (1909), they have become voluntary appendages of the machine as a result of their reactionary paranoia.
Asimov’s most popular sequence of stories, beginning with “I, Robot” (1950), was based on an exploration of robots as necessarily “benign,” because controlled by the Three Laws of Robotics, a system of ethics designed to prevent any takeover by robots such as Čapek had depicted. Ironically, these laws were accepted and propagated by later science fiction writers as though they had inherent validity. In the broader context, however, Asimov’s robots are atypical, for they are so humanized that they blur, if they do not actually deny, the issues being explored by other writers.
Contrary to Asimov’s intention, and possibly unrealized by him, the stories themselves subvert this comfortable optimism, for not only are the human characters upstaged by the more intelligent robots that become the problem-solving heroes of these stories, but the more moral human characters are, themselves, governed by the Three Laws of Robotics. In “Evidence” (1946) the politician Byerly, the most “ethical” human in the robot stories, is accused of being a humanoid (android) with a robot’s brain, and the robopsychologist Susan Calvin concedes, “Actions such as his could come only from a robot, or from a very honorable and decent human being. But you see, you just can’t differentiate between a robot and the very best of humans.” Where problems in the robots’ functioning occur, it is almost invariably attributed to a failure in perception or logic on the part of the humans. The interest of the stories thus centers, not on human qualities and emotions, but on the laws of logic and intellectual wordplay; that is, the plot interest is determined by the rules of the robots and, in the later stories, the computer.
The approved stereotype emerging from Asimov’s stories is a thorough-going materialist and pragmatist who, without a qualm, exploits the solar system in the name of efficiency and human imperialism. In View from a Height (1963) Asimov discusses the most efficient means of colonizing the other planets, where existing life could provide an immediate source of food for the prospective Terran colonists; the use of space as a garbage dump for radioactive waste; and an ingenious real-estate scheme for selling off planets broken into asteroids. Indeed, Asimov’s heroes bear a striking resemblance to C.S. Lewis’s archvillain, Weston .
A similar, optimistic view of artificial intelligence informs Frank Herbert’s novel Destination: Void (1966). His four scientists aboard the spaceship Earthling—a psychiatrist, a life-systems engineer, a doctor who specializes in brain chemistry, and a computer scientist—represent the four disciplines most closely allied with the understanding and development of cognitive science. In the critical circumstances that attend their lone journey through space, they come to the realization that their survival depends on developing high-level artificial intelligence. Herbert’s view is clearly that machine intelligence in cooperation with human intelligence is our only hope for the future and that scientists are therefore indispensable for the very reasons that led to their vilification by the majority of novelists discussed hitherto.
From From Madman to Crime Fighter, by Roslynn D. Haynes, courtesy Johns Hopkins Press. Copyright 2017, by Roslynn D. Haynes.