In this part of the unit, students will independently explore fictional representations of a future world where humans and humanoids coexist. There are endless films and books on this topic, and students should be encouraged to choose a work themselves, including video games or virtual worlds, which are not suggested here, but will be incorporated into this unit from student recommendations. Class discussions will follow on topics below.
Racism, Gender Bias, and Fear of the Self-Replicating Robot
The 1933 Frankenstein film is a classic misrepresentation of the novel, and a closer look at when it was made, and the brutal portrayal of the Creature as a cretin who is tortured and killed by a triumphant lynch mob is disturbing, especially in light of the Eugenics Movement and scapegoating and lynching of African Americans in the South during this time. Jill Lepore’s article in The New Yorker offers key insights into this film.
Humanoids that can replicate, not unlike human females in a male-dominated society, are both desired and feared. Pandora, Pygmalion, and Eve stories recur in many modern creation stories. The stunning 1927 silent film Metropolis depicts a female robot that comes to symbolize the corruption and seductive power of the machine. The Alien films, which also feature a strong female lead, thematically depict the power of the womb. The original Alien film is based on Beowulf, a science-fiction archetype, also features a powerful maternal humanoid creature. Other examples include Her (2013), which depicts a female, bodiless virtual assistant, and Ex Machina (2014), which depicts a female humanoid desperate to free herself from bondage.
The next two recommendations are worthy for their source material. Philip K. Dick’s story Second Variety adapted into the movie, Screamers (1995) depicts self-replicating war machines that gain sentience and revolt against both the Soviet Union and the United States to take over the world. The scientific basis for self-replicating computers is found in mathematician John Von Neumann’s book, Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata, published in 1966.25 Czech writer Karel Capek, credited with inventing the word “robot,” was targeted by Hitler, but died before the Gestapo could catch up with him. His Rossum’s Universal Robots, depicts humanoid slaves in a world where humans have even abandoned the desire to have children. After the humans are exterminated in a rebellion, the robots who had been genetically created without emotions, discover the ability to love.
Who Is in Control?
The question of agency arises often in stories concerning our humanoid creations. Frequently, the message is similar to the one in Frankenstein: We are the ones responsible for the programming of the machines that we create, and all that is good or evil about them is a reflection of our own complex soul. The stories ask fundamental questions of what it means to be human, and what happens when we desire to clear our world of labor and death. The lack of understanding of this balance often creates chaos, for as in both the Prometheus story, the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh story, and in Genesis, immortality, instant fulfillment of every desire, and endless leisure are antithesis to experiencing a rich, full human life. In mythology, only mortal humans can be heroic, because despite knowing that we will die, we have the courage to love, and suffer, and strive, and hope. What happens when we yield the suffering that makes us fully human? Suggestions for reading include E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops, and two Ray Bradbury stories, The Veldt and There Will Come Soft Rains.
Will Robots Kill Us? Or, Will They Be Kinder?
Stories abound that predict a kind of robot or mutant apocalypse. And why not? Human history is filled with oppression and revolution, not unlike in Mary Shelley’s time. Pessimistically, it seems likely our own thirst to quench every desire will result in our self-annihilation. Optimistically, the trajectory of human civilization seems to point in fits and starts, to one less violent and more equitable.
Scientists and innovators including Vernor Vinge, Stephen Hawking,26 Elon Musk,27 and Yoshua Bengio28 warn that governments need to step in to regulate dangerous technologies that are spiraling out of control. Computer scientist Jared Lanier argues in his book You Are Not a Gadget, that humans ultimately bear the responsibility to shape a humane technological world. One of my favorite films in the pessimistic mode with feminist overtones is the first of the Terminator (1984) films.
Some books and films pose the question of what it means to be human, and how our creations reflect our own flaws, such as Philip K. Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The novel is the source for the Blade Runner (1982, 2017) films, which are loose, but worthy adaptations of the book. The film A.I. (2001) features a humanoid with more humanity than people – a theme similar in the new novel by Ian McEwan, Machines Like Me.
Perhaps most important to this unit are Isaac Asimov’s novels: I, Robot, The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, and The Robots of Dawn. The film version of I, Robot (2004) is a loose adaptation, but worth viewing on its own. One important difference is that in the film, humans regain control of the world. In the final story of the novel, called The Evitable Conflict, a machine in full compliance with Azimov’s famous “Three Laws of Robotics” is in control, and has achieved what no human could: a peaceable kingdom.