The word “robot” is of Czech origin, coming from the word “robota,” meaning “drudgery” or “forced labor.”
Coined by Karel Čapek, the term was first used in the Czech playwright’s 1921 work, R.U.R., a chilling prediction of mankind’s future in a world inhabited by robots. In the play, human life is eventually forced out by its ultimate artificial creation, hunted down to the last man as the robots gradually discover their own agency and being. In a world of man versus machine, there is no co-operative solution.
In time, the flesh succumbs to cold, unyielding metal, forced to go the way of the passenger pigeon.
Depressing, right? But if you watch enough science-fiction, this cautionary tale will sound familiar. When it comes to stories about man’s metallic offspring, the conclusion often results or centers on man’s own end. Consider The Matrix or The Terminator or Tron, each a story based around the destructive possibilities of robots, each one strangely obsessed with the son killing his own father.
Why the daddy issues? Why the fear of being overthrown?
In the interest of fairness, let’s consider a different story: Osamu Tezuka’s 1952 classic manga, Astro Boy. In Tezuka’s work, the players stay the same, but the outcome forks. Instead of bringing an end to humanity, Astro Boy—known in Japan as “Mighty Atom”—is a utopian machine focused on protecting and preserving its creator. Armed with jet-pack legs, super-superhuman strength, and machine guns that fire out of his butt, Astro Boy represents a robo-population genetically instilled with the capability to love. While Neo’s futuristic odyssey in The Matrix is enough to bring out your inner-Amish, Astro Boy makes you want to live in the year 2050, or some distant future, where you have robo-pals willing to peel your grapes.
So, why this divide? Where does it come from? Essentially, it’s the answer to two questions Tezuka poses at the beginning of Astro Boy: "Why do humans create robots? Why do humans make machines do human work?"
With the latest product of robotic pop culture Titanfall now in stores, we're given an answer somewhere in the middle of Tezuka and Čapek’s texts. Titanfall presents a centaur-like community where man merges with machine to raise the stakes of the global arms races that have been going on for centuries now, whether in the Cold War, the current conflict with North Korea, or otherwise. A robot’s place in these matters isn’t necessarily good or bad, it’s just the human cycle set on repeat. Technology is neutral. It’s a supplement to human intention. If anything, it's the most accurate prediction about robots you can get based on what is happening now.
Of course, video games have also contributed to both the utopian and dystopian endpoints of robo-culture. We can find hard, emotionless robotic populations in games like Chrono Trigger, Half Life 2, Bioshock and the Metal Gear Solid franchise. Alternatively, the peaceful human/robot relations that Tezuka predicted in Astro Boy has also served as a backdrop or starting point for the Mega Man series, Chibi-Robo!, and Ratchet & Clank.
Looking at each of these scenarios, we see the good, the bad, and the ugly grey area. And, as with all fiction, we’ll have a tendency to try and apply their respective realities to our real world. Can any of these video games realistically serve as templates for what’s to come? Does any particular scenario seem to outweigh another?
The answer to these questions will come down to the human cultures that have already been carved out throughout history. In 2007, Danish director Phie Ambo released Mechanical Love, a documentary focused on the role that robots play in various countries across the world. She followed Hiroshi Ishiguro, a Japanese professor currently in the process of creating his own geminoid, a robot that could effectively serve as a programmed stand-in for Ishiguro, replicating his appearance, mannerisms, and speech. Ambo also visited a retirement community in Copenhagen, where an old woman suffering from dementia was given Paro, a therapeutic seal robot, to provide her with company and stimulate brain activity.
When viewing Ambo’s film, it's crucial to not only pay attention to how the robots are being used, but to how the surrounding community reacts to robots being used at all. In Ambo’s native Denmark, there was a distinct discomfort with the old woman and her robo-pet, even though it was essentially a harmless toy for the elderly. In Japan, the uneasiness was less evident, if even existent. Toys like Paro have already been well-implemented into the Japanese community. They are past the point of creating pets. Now, they’ve moved on to making clones with Ishiguro and his geminoid.
The idea of geminoids is one we should remember, because it isn’t the first time we’ve seen it before. Ishiguro’s geminoid concept is an idea that dates back to Astro Boy, as the titular character was actually a geminoid himself, though perhaps without that precise wording. Built as a replacement for Doctor Tenma’s deceased child, Tobio, Astro Boy was created to act like a human being, and to receive and give love like a human being. If that seems like an overly sentimental or inconsequential bit of information to include, it’s not. Giving human characteristics or equal treatment to robots is a luxury that few robots have received in most fictional universes. Indeed, the “robot laws” that Tezuka laid down decades ago (as well as those of noted science-fiction author Isaac Asimov) serve as the framework for this thinking. Robots have always been burdened with the weight of second-class citizenship.
Think about GlaDos, the Portal series' artificial intelligence servant gone haywire. Remember Mother Brain, the biomechanical supercomputer bent on human destruction in the Metroid universe. They too were once tools for human use. It begs the question: at what point do the oppressed rise up?
If we’re looking to answer questions about the future, the question of oppression permeates across all levels of society, robotic or otherwise. In such a case, it seems logical for the most likely outcome to be a failed utopia, a point when Robo just couldn’t take it anymore, and started laying waste to Chrono and his pals. But do computers—like human beings—actually have their limits? Or is that just a human flaw that we want to project onto our perfect labor machines?
Whatever you choose to believe, it's hard not to have concerns about what path robotics will eventually take. These concerns may prompt you to exercise patience with your current technological companion. The next time you're angry at your computer or smart phone, the next time you want smash it against the ground, you may feel that it'd be wise to think again. After all, what's the old rule? Treat other people the way you want to be treated. If you follow the gospel of video games, the day of applying the Golden Rule to a metal man isn't so far off.
You're playing in it all the time.