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Robots on film

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Posted: Sunday, July 11, 2004 8:30 am | Updated: 6:16 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

Educator and science fiction author Gregory Benford is all man — except for the titanium and steel joint that surgeons recently implanted in his left shoulder. While this hardly puts the University of California at Irvine physics professor in the same league as Darth Vader, famously described as "more machine than man" by arch-nemesis Obi-Wan Kenobi, it does give Benford pause.

"I think it’s inevitable that human beings will start to incorporate more robot technologies into their bodies," Benford predicts, citing recent advances in prosthetic limbs and artificial retinas. "Even the current technology is pretty amazing, like something out of a movie."

Frequently, it is. Since the days of Fritz Lang and his landmark science fiction opus, "Metropolis" (1926), filmmakers have been fascinated with the idea of shaping machines into artificial people, and vice versa. Ranging from visionary ("Blade Runner") to the downright laughable ("Heartbeeps"), these specimens of cybernetic cinema often function as social mirrors, reflecting mankind’s anxieties, aspirations and feelings about itself.

For instance, many movies about robots, androids and cyborgs are informed by the slave principle — machines are slaves, and therefore will inevitably revolt against their masters. Filmmakers revisit this somewhat paranoid theme regularly, from "The Terminator" to "The Matrix" to the Will Smith robots-runamok thriller "I, Robot," opening Friday.

(The word robot is itself derived from the Czech "robota," meaning drudgery or forced labor. Playwright Karel Capek first applied the word to thinking machines in his 1921 play "R.U.R." — an acronym for "Rossum’s Universal Robots.")

With many so-called "smart" homes equipped with programmable vacuum cleaners and centralized security systems, even the middling Tom Selleck vehicle "Runaway" (1984) — involving deadly accidents caused by malfunctioning domestic robots — seems eerily prescient.

Still, Benford — who points to Hal 9000 from Stanley Kubrick’s "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968) as his favorite example of computer noncompliance — says that a general revolt of thinking machines is still the stuff of sci-fi pipe dreams. Even the technology of a computer as advanced as Hal is a long way off.

"Not in my lifetime," he insists. "It will be a long time before you can buy something as smart as you are, which is to say, as adaptive. On the scale of a half a century, maybe."

Set a mere 30 years in the future, "I, Robot" is loosely based on the novella by late science fiction pioneer Isaac Asimov, whose greatest legacy may be his Three Laws of Robotics, a cybernetic constitution of sorts that prohibits robots from harming human beings or allowing humans to come to harm. Coined in the days of UNIVAC and other cumbersome, punch-card computers, Asimov’s Three Laws foretold the collision of ethics and programming.

In the movie, technophobic gumshoe Del Spooner (Smith) investigates a murder in which a robot is the main suspect — a murder that the robot theoretically could not have committed because of the Three Laws.

Rebellion isn’t the only robotic theme explored by filmmakers; often, robotic characters are used to illustrate affairs of the heart, of finding connection and happiness in a technological world that often seems cold and remote. In the aforementioned "Heartbeeps" (1981), Andy Kaufman and Bernadette Peters play a pair of robots in love who decide to explore the world around them. In the more recent "Robot Stories" (2003), from independent filmmaker Greg Pak, robotic characters grapple with issues ranging from parental separation to romantic isolation.

Ridley Scott’s "Blade Runner" (1982) went a step further; the fugitive "replicants," with their thirst for freedom and edgy emotions, often seemed more human than the dull, passionless people who walked the rain-slick streets of a futuristic Los Angeles. The same goes for Haley Joel Osment’s orphaned robot child in Steven Spielberg’s "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence," whose fairy-tale yearning for a family of his own cut to the very heart of the human experience.

Benford scoffs at the idea of purposefully programming machines to experience destabilizing emotions — "We don’t have those in short supply now." Indeed, some filmmakers have explored the idea of using robots to rid society of its passions. In Bryan Forbes’ "The Stepford Wives" (1975) — recently remade into a far less thoughtful and interesting farcical comedy — robot housewife dopplegangers stroll suburban Connecticut in a placid haze. Or "Metropolis," in which a robot imposter is used to pacify the worker masses.

However, Benford admits that behavioral unpredictability is something that humanity will have to confront as thinking machines become more advanced, possibly bringing scenarios such as those depicted in "2001" to life.

"Hal became homicidal and neurotic because he had conflicting commands," Benford says. "And conflicting commands are part of life."

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