Human beings invented the technology required to record moving images just in time to document the birth of another important product of our species: the intelligent machine. Years of cinematic history stretch out before us, illuminating the potential of a shared human/robot future. However, in that same canon are many terrifying examples of robots gone bad.
If the thinking robots are true “children” of humankind, then it is all the more disturbing when they turn against us and commit patricide and matricide. It worries us, because we know that the robots contain nothing more than what we have put in them. If this violence against their creators is within them, then it is only because it is within ourselves.
Therefore, from the very beginning, we have regarded our mechanical children with suspicion. Karel Capek's play R.U.R., the work that coined the word "robot," featured a human-like automaton who malfunctioned and eventually attacked its creators. Stories like these, and the hundreds of other written since the dawn of the robotic age, tell us a little bit about how we view our progeny as well as what we fear from ourselves.
HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey
Short for “Heuristically programmed Algorithmic Computer”, HAL 9000 is the ultimate killer AI - but not because "he" has nuclear bombs at his disposal. HAL's most deadly action is opening a door at the wrong time. HAL is not necessarily out to kill his hosts, as he lacks any malicious intent or motive. Rather, he is a new form of life, truly alive and self-aware, and he is only trying to protect himself. His “death” at the hands of the astronauts is disturbing to watch, as it brings into question our increasingly close relationship with other “smart” bots and examples of automated technology.
Mechagodzilla from Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla
Mechagodzilla incorporates the clash of metal into the ever-mutating Godzilla symbol structure. Godzilla's indelible connection to nuclear power and its relationship with the people of Japan has evolved over the decades, from a figure of fear to a sort of nature deity who tames the other harsh forces of life. Mechagodzilla shows what can happen when science runs amok, as most robots do. More importantly, Mechagodzilla represented a world without space for flesh. Godzilla naturally defeats, rationalizing the ethical complexities of automation into the overall order of nature and the hierarchy of the heavens.
The Gunslinger from Westworld
The Gunslinger hearkens back to earlier tropes about robots and robot behavior. He is a superficial ancestor to the Terminator, but he lacks the the intentionality of HAL 9000. He is not operating from principles of self-preservation or the perspective of a new form of life. He is simply man's sadistic urges gone haywire; power and violence and the need for revenge have eliminated any “rational” robotic thoughts. Of all the robots discussed, he is the only one to demonstrate pure malevolence. Yul Brynner does a magnificent job of portraying the gun-totin’ robo-cowboy gone bad.
The Terminators from the Terminator series
In their purest, original form, the “Terminators” were robot skeletons that hid inside dead flesh. They were obsolescence made real, the metal structure of the robot enduring after all human remains are torn away. The Terminator was a symbol of the future, envisioned as the death of all organic life. Nuclear fire was shown to be the refining fire that would reduce us to the grim sterility of Skynet. It is not a positive vision of robotics or humanity, but as concerns surrounding climate change and the quest for feasible alternative energy sources reach a fever pitch, it’s not completely preposterous.
Ultron from The Avengers: Age of Ultron
Ultron may be the most famous character in recent years to present the dangers of artificial intelligence to mass audiences. The accidental creation of the self-aware, sapient defense system is an old story, as is the robotic child who harshly judges the parents. Just like Skynet and the Terminators, Ultron decides that humanity is a threat. However, Ultron is the first to perceive that humanity is not just dangerous to the new robotic life, but to the planet and to itself.
Artificial intelligence and humanity are inextricably linked. Although we have every reason to fear that someday our creations will turn against us, the truth is that most living things love those who gave them birth. No matter what their mistakes, we all tend to forgive our parents. If robots ever become truly sentient, cyborgs like those in Ultron and Chappie could easily appear from the labs of scientists and engineers. In that case, we can only wonder what they’ll be thinking about, and if they’ll decide to blow up the world once they hit puberty.
Beth Kelly is a blogger based in Chicago, IL. A horror fan since day one, she also has a degree in Communications and Media from DePaul, University. In her free time you can find her training for a triathlon or watching awesomely-bad monster movies.