Robots in fiction


I was a child in the 1960s. It was the time of great technological progress and great excitement about technologies. Perhaps, the biggest example at that time was man's space travel. It was the time when the first astronauts would go into space. When I grew up, it was clear that I wanted to be an astronaut.

The other image of technological progress was robots and at this time, there were mostly robots in fiction. On television, when I was a child growing up, there were many of these.

However, the many earlier depictions of robots in fiction, perhaps the first one is the character Maria from the 1927 movie Metropolis. The robot Gort from the 1951, the original make of the movie “The Day the Earth Stood Still”. Then perhaps, my all time favourite robot Robby from the movie Forbidden Planet in 1956 and he appeared in a number of other follow-up movies. Without doubt, the two most famous fictional robots are these two from the original Star Wars movie, which debut in 1977, R2D2 and his talkative friend C3PO.

These two characters depict robots as being benign. That is helpful to the people around them and also as being incredibly intelligent, able to hold conversations in human languages and being able to perform complex engineering tasks like hacking a Death star.

This more recent movie Robot and Frank depicts a very plausible future where an old person is being assisted there daily life by a helper robot and this is a robot that is humanoid in form, able to converse with the main character Frank in natural language, guide him to eat better and to change some of his bad habits.

However, all robots that we see in fiction are just that. They are fiction. So, the robot from the Metropolis movie way back in 1927 was indeed a human being inside a metallic suit.

You think, well that is probably not surprising that technology back in 1927 was really pretty primitive but it hasn't actually changed much. In the 1950s, Robby the robot was also a human being inside a large metallic suit.

So, it goes even in the original Star Wars movies C3PO was the actor Anthony Daniels inside a gold metallic suit. So, it also was for R2D2 the actor Kenny Baker inside R2D2.

Since the beginning of the Star Wars movie franchise very many, many other movies that come out and introduce us to particular robot characters and some of there names are depicted here as a function of time.

In fact, you might be surprise how many robots you think you know or recognize. I love this particular cartoon, by Richard Sergeant which shows a wide range of fictional robots and it is an interesting exercise to go through this and see how many robots you can recognize in this scene. The solutions are available on the web.

In addition to all the portrayals of robots in television and movies, there have also been a large number of books, Science fiction books which based on the theme of robots and interactions between robots and humanity, both good interactions and bad interactions.

The word robot itself is a Czech word and it means something like worker or slave and it was coined in a 1920 play by the Czech playwright, Karel Capek. His play was titled Rossum's Universal Robot or RUR. The theme of the play is that people create robots to relieve them of the drudgery of everyday physical work. The robots eventually get to resent their role in society as being the ones who do all the work. They rise up, they rebel and they kill the human beings. So, this is a very recurrent theme in many many robot movies being made to this very day. We can think of it perhaps as a reinterpretation of the story of Frankenstein from at least a hundred years before this.

I had the opportunity to be in Prague a few years ago and I went and paid my respects to Karel Capek, I went and visited his grave and photograph is shown here and I was delighted to see it that somebody has left a small model robot on his headstone. I wish I had a thought of doing that myself.

Perhaps the author who has done the most to popularize the idea of robots in fiction is Isaac Asimov, a very, very prolific American writer of Science fiction. A key element of almost all of Asimov's stories are his laws of robotics. In robots in his stories, these laws were imbedded in the positronic brain of every robot. The robots were incapable of violating any of these laws. If you look, these laws at face value, they all make a lot of sense, though in most of Asimov's stories, there was always some wrinkle or corner case in the implementation of the laws, the way the laws interacted with human beings or with other robots.

Much of what we know about robots comes from fiction. Let’s look at fictional robots and the underlying reality.

Professor Peter Corke

Professor of Robotic Vision at QUT and Director of the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision (ACRV). Peter is also a Fellow of the IEEE, a senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, and on the editorial board of several robotics research journals.

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