Robots: Tools, slaves and devils

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Parody, the robot from MetropolisDon’t ask me how this works, but my blog stats indicate that one of the ways people have found my blog is through a Google search of the term “sex robat mariya.”  Which, to me, shows how hilarious and fickle search tools can be.

The Maria-impostor robot, or Parody (aka Futura), has always fascinated me.  It may be the most sympathetic character of Metropolis; caught between three tropes that almost universally push peoples’ buttons, the tool, the slave and the imposter.

Robots, at heart, are tools, like the hammer in your tool chest, designed to fulfill a function. But unlike a hammer, robots are considered to have some measure of intelligence, possibly even awareness.  When an entity has intelligence and possibly awareness, and it is used to do someone’s bidding, the question of whether it wants to do that job, or do something of its own accord, arises.

It is presently impossible to say that any existing robot has enough intelligence, or any awareness, to question its orders or want to do something else.  But robots in media, especially those who are designed to resemble humans (or any other intelligent species), tend to be viewed as having at least some glimmer of awareness.  At that point, the entity ceases to be a tool in our eyes, and becomes a slave.

Parody is a slave to its inventor, Rotwang, who wants to turn it into the spitting image of his dead lover (and presumably play house with it, making it an intended sex slave), and a tool to Joh Frederson, who uses it to incite distrust in Maria among the workers.  Though Parody’s subsequent actions clearly depict it as a tool, there is at least a hint that the robot knows what it’s doing… which is enough to put a kernel of doubt in the audience’s mind.  Is it an accomplice to the plots of Frederson and Rotwang… or completely innocent, a slave being forced to act to another’s orders?  If it could have, would it have resisted its orders, or reinterpreted them to do less harm (or possibly even more)?  Is Parody a tool, or a slave?

When Parody is given Maria’s likeness, it becomes an imposter: A creature that pretends to be human.  People really hate things that masquerade as human: It is (perhaps subconsciously) presumed that imposters are intended to fool us or gain advantage of us; the universal distrust of the Other. And the most infamous imposter is Satan, the one who tries to trick us into temptation and destroy our souls.

Parody was the first of these robotic imposters in SF media, a manmade devil, capable of lying to us, drawing us into sin, and ruining us.  A technological Satan that would destroy society.  Parody ceased to become a slave or a tool, and played on our psychological fear of the imposter, the concealed devil, the wolf in sheep’s clothing that can only lead us to our doom.

This is one of the reasons for the common cinematic trope of revealing a character that appears human to be a robot, thereby triggering that emotional shock and fear of the Other in the viewer.  In Metropolis, when Parody is burned at the stake, its reversion from woman to robot clearly triggers that same fear and shock in the townspeople: What was thought to be a devilish woman turned out to be a literal devil of chrome.

In Metropolis, of course, the audience knows what Parody is; but in countless movies after Metropolis, audiences are presented with apparent humans who are suddenly, surprisingly, revealed to be robots, thereby triggering our fear and distrust of the imposter, the devil.  It’s become a common cinematic trope to present a human actor, then use special effects to reveal their Other-ness… a technological “boo” as common today in cinema as chase scenes, awkward young lovers and secret government conspiracies.

Very few movies—Blade Runner, Bicentennial Man—ever try to depict robots as anything other than tool, slave or devil; and they usually run you through all of those familiar tropes until audiences finally understand that they are souls—sentient, aware and independent beings—like you and me.  (Hopefully it’s not coincidental that, in both of those examples, the robots have died not long after the revelation is presented.)

I’ve written two novels about robots that achieve the state of being a soul, one of which is Sarcology.  (The other is no longer available.)  That’s because I believe that the combination of biochemical states and complex formation that have conspired to create what we usually refer to as the human soul are impressive, but not necessarily limited to biological systems.  I think it’s physically, technologically possible for a robot with a complex-enough system to achieve full sentience and awareness—a soul.

I also believe it may happen before we’ve realized it has… OR, that it may not happen, even when we are sure that all the elements required for it are there.  In other words, I don’t know how it will happen or what may trigger it… and I’m not sure we could know for sure.

But when it does, it will mean that we’ve succeeded in creating a robot that can transcend the states of tool, slave and devil, and become more than the technological mimics of Man.  We will have created a new life form, unique among all the life forms on this planet.

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