Robots’ representation in pop culture

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Movie robots are very often the evil characters of a dystopian future, but what about the good, helpful robots? As a new show about the evolution of robots opens at the Science Museum, it’s time to be realistic about the positive ways robots will contribute to our future.

The exhibition at the Science Museum in London, entitled Robots, proposes to the public a collection of 100 robots, from mechanised human forms to innovative technology. But why are we fascinated with robots, and making machines humane?

From a lifelike baby to robots without conscience, the Robots exhibition gives a fascinating preview of their evolution. There, the oldest robot is an automaton monk who is a sort of a mechanisation of faith. But it’s in the 1920s that robots really started to emerge. 100 years ago, it was already a mechanised world and it’s mainly with the first blockbuster robots movie Metropolis, and its protagonist Maria, in 1927, that robots entered pop culture.

Ben Russell, curator of the Robots exhibition, said: “Sci-fi and the sort of the robots baddies are just one of those cultural things out there, and one of the purposes of roboticists is to show that actually most robots are helpful and they do what you want to do. Historically that’s certainly the case.”

Bored with the negativity around robots in the last century, writer Isaac Asimov created in the 1950s his Three Laws that he had to follow in all of his novels, in which robots won’t injure humans and there won’t be conflict between the two races. Before these laws, most robot stories followed the same narrative: a human makes a robot that turns on its creator, being also called “The Frankenstein Complex”.

I don’t think the fascination and fantasy of robots that are somehow ‘like us’ can be detached from our natural feeling to be terrorised by them

The advent of robots and AI trigger two opposing feelings in people: they either see it as a menace or as fascinating. “It’s a bit of a love-hate relationship, isn’t it?” points Ben Russell.

Never-ending technological advances terrify society. According to a study made by the British Science Museum in March 2016, almost half of those questioned were against robots or programming equipped with emotions or a personality. This means pop culture preferred robots in movies such as WALL-E (2008) or Ex Machina (2015) would not be that popular in the real world.

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Dr Christopher Holliday is an expert in digital media and film technology at King’s College London. “There is a fascination that comes with lifelike behaviour in robots that is dually troubling yet irresistible,” he says. “Whether this is contemporary Hollywood (like in the Transformers series) to film less in the action genre like Her and Ex Machina, I don’t think the fascination and fantasy of robots that are somehow ‘like us’ can be detached from our natural feeling to be terrorised by them.”

But technophobia is quite common. According to the British Science Museum study, one third of the population believe that Artificial Intelligence is a threat to humanity. In December 2014 Stephen Hawking told the BBC that AI “could spell the end of the human race”. 

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Mark Stevenson is an author and an expert on global trends and innovation. He definitely thinks society will accept the increase use of robots in the everyday life, because it always has. “People hate technology until it stops sucking,” Stevenson says. “Before, people were questioning how useful technology was to be, and now we all use it.”

When we think about it, let’s not forget people already use robots on a daily basis. “A car is a robot that stops us having to walk. A washing machine is a robot that allows us to have clean clothes without spending hours scrubbing,” points Jon Welch, writer and director of new play Spillikin.

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Spillikin is a play on tour until April, from Pipeline Theatre, where humanoid robot takes to stage. Mixing romance and robotic advances, the play is delicately telling the love story between Raymond and Sally, while showing a more human vision of robots in our society: the use of robots in elderly care, and general companionship it can provide. Raymond has a genetic disorder and risks dying at a young age, so he builds a robot for his wife Sally to keep her company after his death. The play showcases four actors in total as well as a real robot.

“Often in Hollywood, robots either become human and develop a ‘soul’, or they kill everyone,” writer and director Jon Welch explains. “Here, it seemed we could find a middle ground, where a robot could be ‘humanised’ by a fellow character without entering a world of magic science fiction, where it actually becomes human.”

In the story, the robot is made and programmed by the woman’s husband. Welch says: “It’s his life work, in order to allow himself a version of immortality, perhaps even a better version of himself, knowing, as he does, that he won’t live to be able to look after her in old age. It’s a love-letter, essentially.”

Often in Hollywood, robots either become human and develop a ‘soul’, or they kill everyone

Welch explains the message conveyed in the play is that robots and Artificial Intelligence may become part of an armoury of looking after older people with dementia-related conditions. But do we want to end our lives hidden away, in the company of robots?

What is sure is that robots are already contributing to our everyday life and are more convenient than scary. So what’s the deal with sci-fi putting all the blame on robots and creating this paranoia around them?

Don’t forget: “Once you’ve had a lover robot, you’ll never want a real man again.” – Gigolo Joe, AI: Artificial Intelligence, 2001.

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