Robots in Science Fiction
Created | Updated Jul 30, 2015
Concepts and Elements of Science Fiction in TV and Films
Computers In Science Fiction: The Basics
Computers In Science Fiction: Classic Movies | Computers in Science Fiction: Contemporary Movies | Computers In Science Fiction: TV | Computers In Science Fiction: Novels and Short Stories
Androids in Science Fiction | Cyborgs in Science Fiction
This entry is an exploration of the evolution of robots in science fiction and has been ordered chronologically. There is a separate entry on Androids in Science Fiction, the distinguishing difference being that androids are built to resemble humans (having humanoid bodies), whereas robots are not necessarily so (having odd shaped bodies, or being too small to be human. This entry is not intended to be a complete list of all androids in science fiction, rather a guide to show how they have evolved over time, as humans have learnt about robotics and computing.
Rossum's Universal Robots (1920)
This play, published in 1920, would at first glance appear to be nothing more than a 'Man builds robots - Robots destroy mankind - Robots take over the world' story, but there is much more to it than that. Written by Karel Capek, whose brother Josef, also a respected Czech writer, coined the phrase 'robot' from the Czech word robota means 'drudgery' or 'servitude' (a robotnik is a peasant or serf).
The play centres on whether the robots, made by the RUR company, have souls. They exhibit certain features that make some people want to free them. To answer the question, some robots are modified to allow their soul to develop. The creator of them questions this move when he makes Robotess, a beautiful but useless robot. If she were to 'wake up', she would hate him for making her so beautiful, yet giving her a body that cannot know love or give birth.
Eventually one of the modified robots issues the command: 'Robots of the world, you are ordered to exterminate the human race. . . Work must not cease!' At which point the robots kill humanity.
Nature eventually re-emerges triumphant when two Robots (the beautiful but otherwise useless Robotess, and Primus) fall in love. The play ends on an uplifting, religious note. Alquist (the last living human) blesses the lovers, renames them Adam and Eve, and sends them out to avoid the sins that destroyed their predecessors.
Gort - The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)
The Day The Earth Stood Still1 is a science fiction classic. It was made when most sci-fi movies were about evil aliens (read: Communists) trying to take over the Earth (read: America and the Western world), yet this film was refreshingly different. A traveller from outer space arrives on Earth with his robotic companion Gort. He plans to warn humanity about toying with nuclear weapons and that war would not be tolerated if humanity wanted to take part in intergalactic exploration and communication2.
Unfortunately a panicky soldier shoots the traveller and Gort starts attacking. Gort's primary function is to protect and serve his master. Gort does not display overt intelligence, but he is capable of understanding spoken commands. The main point in the story is the female lead telling Gort:
Klaatu Barada Nikto
which presumably means 'Stop blowing things up.'
The Gort suit was made of two overlapping suits to give a seamless look. It also made it very heavy, and in some scenes it is possible to see the actor swaying about as the suit's weight affects his balance.
Asimov's Robots (1954 - 1992)
Asimov wrote many stories about robots, far too many to list them all here, but the two most commonly referenced and most highly regarded works are The Naked Sun and I, Robot, a collection of short stories.
The Naked Sun is a murder-mystery set off-world. The basic plot is that a prominent scientist is brutally murdered in his home, surrounded by robots that must not allow any harm to come to him. The only witness to the murder is a robot that can no longer function and has been destroyed. The only other human on the estate is his wife, a woman he can barely stand to be with. The final scene is when all the suspects are rounded up in the library and the detective reveals who killed the scientist and how.
The I, Robot series of stories features several classics of science fiction. The story Runaround is a masterpiece of science fiction. It involves two astronauts and a robot stationed on Mercury. They send it out to collect selenium from the sun side3. The robot becomes stuck in a logic loop, due to the three laws of robotics trapped between the second law (requiring him to obey orders) and the third law (which insure self preservation). The essence is that it is overheating. As it overheats, it aborts and turns around, heading back to the base, but on the way, it cools down, the self preservation mechanism turns off and it resumes its course. It is trapped in this logical loop. It is an interesting story because Asimov (who invented the three laws) is showing that they can cause problems.
Little Lost Robot deals with a robot that is told to 'get lost' and being a robot, it obeys in a very clever way.
Evidence and its sequel The Evitable Conflict feature a character called Steven Beyerly. In the first story he is a politician and is accused of being a robot, the second concerns a conspiracy that the machines (computers with positronic brains) are firing robot-hostile managers and replacing them with more friendly managers.
One common theme that Asimov uses time and again is how the robots are not just in the society, but are part of the society. They are everywhere;
One cannot swing a dead cat without hitting a robot or finding the robot programmed to swing the dead cat.
Another common theme is that of a human making a flippant or poorly thought out remark to a robot, who then obeys and does something stupid, but in a clever, robotic way. But possibly the most interesting concept is in Catch That Rabbit which involves a lazy robot that only works if it is being watched. Asimov was great at introducing human concepts like sloth and boredom to robots, something few other authors had done previously.
Asimov invented the word 'robotic' and the principle of 'robotics'. Few authors can claim to have invented a word which went into common usage.
Other robot characters are R Daneel Olivaw in the Robot novels and some of the Foundation novels and R Landar in The Naked Sun.
Asimov also wrote a lot of android stories. See Androids in Science Fiction for more information.
For those who are interested, Asimov.com holds a wealth of information of Asimov's work.
Robbie - The Forbidden Planet (1956)
Perhaps the most famous of all science fiction robots, Robbie was built by professor Morbius on Altair IV, otherwise known as The Forbidden Planet. He was used as a household servant, and is programmed with Asimov's Laws of Robotics, in fact he nearly burns out while trying to kill the monster, as he must obey the order but also must not kill living things. He also makes dresses for Altaira, Morbius's daughter.
Robbie has a human personality, though he does not possess emotions. He is conversant in 188 languages and has an internal chemical analyser. He can synthesise almost any chemical required.
He is one of science fiction's most beloved robots, and manages to look almost cute, even though he is a huge black lumbering monolith of a robot. As the robot suit was so expensive to build at the time, it was re-used as often as possible in several other science fiction films.
Many people recognise a similarity between this Robbie and the Robbie in Lost in Space, and in one notable episode of the family sci-fi series, Robbie made a guest appearance. They are indeed reasonably similar. Both look far too awkward to be of any real use in building things, or repairing spacecraft.
K9 - Doctor Who (1977)
K9 is a computerised robot dog that was a faithful 'second-best friend' to Doctor Who for one of his incarnations, the fourth (Tom Baker).
K9 made his first television appearance in the 1977 story 'The Invisible Enemy'. The first K9 was created in the 50th century by Professor Marius of the Bi-Al Foundation. At the end of the story, Marius gave K9 to the Doctor as a gift because Marius was going back to Earth and couldn't take K9 with him. K9 Mark 1's last appearance was on 'Invasion of Time' and stayed on the Doctor's home planet of Gallifrey with the Doctor's companion Leela. He now works with the Chancellery Guards on Gallifrey.
K9 Mark 2's first appearance was in the following story 'The Ribos Operation'. This K9 was built by the Doctor himself and he made some improvements on the original, making it smarter, more humorous, and (slightly) more mobile than the old one. This version stayed with the Doctor up until the 1981 adventure 'Warrior's Gate' when it remained with Romana, another companion of the Doctor's who had decided to leave his side and set off on her own travels.
During the time the Doctor had K9 Mark 2, he built a third one and gave him to an previous companion, Sarah Jane Smith. K9 Mark 3 made his first and only appearance in a one-off Christmas special called K9 and Company. Though it was hoped the special might lead to a full series, it was not to be. However, he made a cameo in a later episode of Doctor Who, 'The Five Doctors' (1983).
K9 is an ever faithful companion to the Doctor, a sort of mobile computer, able to perform complex calculations and provide the Doctor with a new viewpoint to a problem. K9 does think and wishes that the Doctor would install a SREMEC, or self righting mechanism, which is something he lacks. In the novelisation of one story, we are party to K9's thoughts:
I'm on my side. On a conveyor belt. Heading towards a furnace. And I can't self right. Oh well, nothing to do but wait for the Doctor to rescue me.
K-9 can also defend himself with a laser mounted in his nose and has advanced sensors.
Twiki - Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1977)
The cute little robot from Buck Rogers in the 25th Century who was the personal assistant of Dr Theopolis, a computer professor who was housed in a plastic box. Felix Silla played the body of Twiki, Mel Blanc provided the voice, which was a series of 'beedly beedly beddlies'. Only Dr Theopolis could translate for him. Buck befriends Twiki and later he either develops or is given better vocal capabilities.
The last season also starred Jeff David as the voice of Crichton, a more advanced robot built by Dr Goodfellow, who was so smart, he refused to believe that a human had built him.
More information at Buck-Rogers.com.
R2-D2 - Star Wars (1977)
R2-D2, pronounced Artoo-Detoo, and shortening to R2 (Artoo) is an astromech droid and made his first appearance in Star Wars (also known as 'Episode IV: A New Hope'), the first Star Wars movie made. He is a great starship mechanic and computer interface specialist and some have likened him to a futuristic Swiss army knife. His lifelong friend, C-3PO is never far from him throughout the films. they argue constantly, and R2 is not immune to mistakes, he turns up the heating in Princess Leia's chambers on the frozen world of Hoth, thus flooding the room and mistook a power outlet for a computer terminal which resulted in an electrical shock.
An astromech droid's first function is the repair and maintenance of a starship, whether it is a cruiser, like Queen Amidala's royal starship or a starfighter, like a N-1 (the kind Anakin flew in Episode I) or an X-Wing.
R2-D2 seems to have a taste for adventure and danger, in opposition to C-3PO's downright cowardice. R2 always manages to persuade him. Like Twiki, he cannot be understood without an interpreter.
C-3PO: No, I don't think he likes you.
C-3PO: No, I don't like you either.
R2-D2's owners have been: Naboo Royal Fleet (Queen Amidala - Episodes I & II), Royal House of Alderaan (Leia's family - Episode IV), Owen Lars (Luke's uncle - Episode IV) and Luke Skywalker4 (Episode IV - VI). It is assumed he was constructed on Naboo, as no prior information about him is available. His silver head is in keeping with the Naboo design tastes of the time.
More information on R2-D2 is available in his Star Wars.com Biography.
'I, Robot' - The Outer Limits (1998)
A particularly brilliant episode from the revival of the classic 1960s anthology series sees Leonard Nimoy as a defence attorney for Adam, a robot, who is accused of killing his creator when he tries to convert Adam to military use. The episode is about Adam fighting for the right to be tried as a human.
Adam's lawyer successfully argues that Adam is sentient and believes they have a good case for acquittal because Adam's creator had inserted a 'blocker' that inhibits Adam's programming, effectively bypassing his safeties, which include the preservation of human life. Adam was, therefore, not of sound mind and judgement at the time of the murder. However, the lawyer is the subject of an attempted murder by a van driver, and Adam is destroyed saving him. It is then that the lawyer realises the real value of a human life, the ability to sacrifice yourself for others.
The story, although not based on any of his stories, draws heavily from Asimov's work.