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Robots in Science Fiction

by Chris Duesing

Robots have been a mainstay element in science fiction for more than a hundred years. In fact, the term ‘robot’ was coined in the 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Karel Čapek, a Czech writer. The word ‘robot’ finds its origin in the Czech phrase ‘robota’, which refers to forced labor or servitude. In this way, even the origin of the word ‘robot’ speaks to their role in science fiction.

Throughout the science fiction genre, robots are controlled by their human creators. Robots are built and programmed to fulfill certain roles or task. Their origin in the genre is closely linked to the Industrial Revolution, which saw a shift from human labor to machine manufacturing. How robotic technology could backfire on humans is a major theme in the genre.

From the first novel to introduce the concept of robots (without ever using the word ‘robot’) to more modern offerings, robots have been an entertainment staple for decades. However, when it comes down to these complex creations, does art imitate life? Is there a real reason for concern, or is it purely science fiction? To answer this question, you need to understand the origin of robots in science fiction and how this concept of robotic beings has developed alongside technology.

On the Origin of Robotic Species

Though the word ‘robot’ does not appear at all in the novel, Samuel Butler’s ‘Erewhon’, published anonymously in 1872, is considered one of the first texts concerned with the rise of artificial intelligence. While the word ‘robot’ would not be coined for another 48 years, the word ‘machines’ is used instead. This speaks to Butler’s inspiration in writing his novel.

In ‘Erewhon’, there are three chapters known as ‘The Book of the Machines’, which deals with notions of artificial consciousness and machines that could self-replicate themselves. In fact, Butler was of the opinion that machines were already able to replicate themselves, but more importantly, it was humans who programmed them to do so.

These three aforementioned chapters draw on earlier ideas of Butler, presented in an article titled ‘Darwin Among the Machines’, which was published nine years before ‘Erewhon’. As the title of Butler’s article suggests, Charles Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’ published in 1859, was a major source of inspiration to Butler. These ideas were further a response to the Industrial Revolution, which saw the rise of machines in the manufacturing industry.

These machines in the Industrial Revolution replaced workers who used to manually perform the required labor. The idea of machines replacing humans, becoming conscious, or even taking control over their creators, has long been a concern in science fiction that features robots. These science fiction narratives have developed in complexity as technology has developed rapidly since the release of ‘Erewhon’ more than a hundred years ago.

Westworld: From 1973 to 2016 and Everything In-Between

‘Westworld’ is perhaps one of the best modern examples of how our views and fears regarding robots have developed alongside technology. Released about 100 years after Samuel Butler’s ‘Erewhon’, the 1973 film ‘Westworld’ – with a screenplay by Michael Crichton, who created Jurassic Park – was the first movie to utilize computer-generated imagery. This alone speaks to how much technology has developed since the release of the ‘Westworld’ film. In this day and age, CGI is found everywhere, from blockbuster Hollywood movies to advertisements on the small screen. To quote Samuel Butler’s ‘Erewhon’: “Reflect upon the extraordinary advance which machines have made during the last few hundred years, and note how slowly the animal and vegetable kingdoms are advancing”.

Like the 2016 HBO television adaption, the original ‘Westworld’ film is about a theme park populated with androids, which are robots designed to resemble humans. While both the film and 2016 series are essentially about these androids malfunctioning and putting the theme park guests at risk, their approaches to their narratives differ greatly.

The 1973 film focuses on a virus that infects the androids that populate the theme parks and, specifically, about one android known as The Gunslinger, who terrorizes the guests of Westworld after he is infected. The film is more black-and-white in terms of the protagonist and antagonist, with the viewer rooting for the demise of The Gunslinger. The 2016 adaption uses a more nuanced approach, taking into consideration the viewpoint of the android hosts who are continuously tortured by the guests. In fact, many viewers may consider the androids as the protagonists of the 2016 series.

While the film may be considered simplistic when compared to its 2016 long-form remake due to the time constraints of a feature film, it still dealt with many ideas that Butler dealt with. One of the chief technicians in the ‘Westworld’ film echoes Butler’s fear of machines becoming conscious and self-replicating. In one scene after the androids start malfunctioning, the supervisor says: “We aren’t dealing with ordinary machines here. These are highly complicated pieces of equipment, almost as complicated as living organisms. In some cases, they’ve been designed by other computers. We don’t know exactly how they work.”

The 2016 adaption takes these notions first observed by Butler and updates them to represent technology in the modern-day. In this way, while still considering these same fears Butler spoke of, the ‘Westworld’ series is able to also comment on more modern implications of technology, such as data privacy and security. While the film simply focuses on malfunctioning hosts running amok in a theme park, the television series dares to question the corporate intentions behind creating these theme parks. 

Do Robots Actually Pose a Threat to Society? 

Whether you’re reading Butler’s ‘Erewhon’ or binge-watching the ‘Westworld’ series, or doing anything between those options, you’ve probably asked yourself whether robots pose a threat to the world we live in. Robots have already replaced humans in many industries since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, so a fear of robots replacing us is almost instinctual.

In ‘Westworld’ (2016), the android robots that are exploited by their makers and the visitors to the theme park eventually gain consciousness and subsequently develop their own interests, as opposed to that of their makers. This is not an idea wholly unique to ‘Westworld’ and has been the focus of many different science fiction narratives. Of these narratives, one of the most important is ‘Runaround’, a short story that appears in Isaac Asimov’s collection, ‘I, Robot’.

In ‘Runaround’, Asimov proposes a set of three rules that can be used to govern robots. These rules are not like rules that govern humans. Instead, they are rules rooted in programming whereby they can prevent robots from causing harm to humans. These rules were developed to protect humans when they are interacting with robots. The three laws are as follows:

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.

These laws were further developed by Asimov and other writers over the years, and Asimov even believed they could be used in reality. However, there have been many critiques of these laws and how they fail to adequately protect humans. In fact, Asimov’s own fiction, as well as countless other science fiction narratives about robots, deal with how these laws can fail people.

The ‘Westworld’ 2016 series, for example, follows android robots as they ensure the survival of their race while disregarding human authority and harming people, which breaks all three laws. You can rest assured, however, that the real-life experts are aware of the dangers posed by robotic technology and artificial intelligence. Robotics in reality is more complex than even science fiction makes it out to be, so every care is taken to prevent a global robotic catastrophe.

Further Robotic Reading

Erewhon, Samuel Butler, 1872
I, Robot, Isaac Asimov, 1950
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (also known as Blade Runner), Phillip K. Dick. 1968
He, She and It, Marge Piercy, 1991
The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi, 2009

Conclusion

Robots are fascinating, both real and fictional. Robots in science fiction are largely a response to the Industrial Revolution and the ever technologically evolving society we live in. Robots in science fiction are both manifestations of our existing fears regarding automization and cautionary tales about what could go wrong down the line. Whether you want to read more about fictional robots or do more research into the real kind, there are plenty of resources to use. Every day new leaps are made in the field of robotics, so you won’t run out of reading! 

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Chris Duesing
Author
Chris Duesing

I am a photographer, writer, entrepreneur, and programmer living in the great city of Chicago. I love to solve problems with technology and share what I have learned along the way.