Science-Fiction Rant: Why I Hate Robots

Robots. I have never really understood why there is an obsession with stories about robots. As with fae, I understand the attraction of having robots exist in a story. What I don’t really get is stories about robots. Robots as the reason for the story. Yet many, many people love stories about robots. Isaac Asimov, arguably, built his career on an obsession with robots. I can’t think of any other piece of future technology — with the possible exception of spaceships — that has inspired such a wealth of stories about them. Can you imagine a whole subgenre of SF devoted to, say, laser guns? Or teleporters (apologies to Larry Niven)? Time machines, perhaps, are the most comparable. But the reason I can’t get into them is this: robots are either tools, or they are tools that imitate beings, they are designed to be beings, or they are accidental beings. And in all but one of these cases, stories about them seem to be unnecessary.

Robots Are Tools: These are the robots I have the least objection to in stories, because they’re the most obviously useful. We deal with this type of robot every day, whether we realize it or not. They’re not required to be shaped like humans, and in most cases, they shouldn’t be. But stories about this sort of robot are about as interesting as stories about screwdrivers or reciprocating saws.

Robots Are Tools That Imitate Beings: Now, on a certain level, I can see stories about this working, because it goes to a pretty profound question: is it important that emotions and souls “really” exist? If I create a robot that imitates a being well enough to fool human beings, does it matter that it is just a machine? On the physical level, of course, the answer is no. If I program a robot to feel rage, and then taunt it until it kills me, then I’m just as dead whether it “really” felt the rage or not. And the impact of these questions on humans can be very compelling: how much “love” can you give or receive from a machine?
But on what level can I possibly care about the machine, once it’s established that such a thing is merely an imitation? If that’s all it is, then you might as well try to get me to care about a reciprocating saw that you stuck a smiley face on.

Robots Are Designed To Be Beings: Again, on a certain level, stories like this make sense, especially if they’re focused on the ethics of creating life, and how the created being reacts to its own creation. Some of those are amazing. But ye gods, how many stories in this realm seem to postulate complete idiocy on the part of the creators. You get things like The Matrix Reanimated where humans seem to take joy in creating super-strong, humanoid robots specifically to be abused, complete with pain sensors and the ability to resent being controlled — and then are surprised when the robots revolt. Or more subtly, A.I., where the robot creator creates a human soul in a body that can’t eat, drink or grow. And then we’re supposed to be surprised that he’s created misery? Or Star Wars, where robots apparently have pain sensors for no definable reason. It’s hard to sympathize with the plight of creators who get slaughtered by robots that have been given every reason to slaughter them.

Robots Are Accidental Beings: Now, this is the one type of robot story that I can get behind: the idea that a machine might, given the right self-programming ability, “wake up” to true consciousness, to the surprise of its creators. In this case, it can’t be accused of being an idiot plot, because the humans are, in a sense, exploring the unknown, and they find something unexpected. That’s a reasonable risk. The humans might reasonably not even suspect that the risk exists. Excellent examples of this are William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Dan Simmons’s Hyperion cycle. But I notice that these stories rarely involve — because they do not need to — actual android-like robots. And why should they? By definition, no one was expecting this robot to take on attributes of human beings. With the exception of a few stories like Terminator 2, where the need for an android-like, accidental intelligence is fairly well justified, most stories of this sort smack of implausibility: “No, we never expected the computer we put in this humanoid body to develop humanoid attributes (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).”  Either that, or the story smacks more of fantasy than sci-fi, with computer + humanoid body being a voodoo-like spell that magically creates a consciousness because of it looks like a human and talks like a human, it will become a human.

Honestly, one of the best “robot” stories I’ve ever read falls in the cracks of about three of these, which is the excellent “Today I Am Paul” by Martin Shoemaker, where it’s made pretty deliberately ambiguous whether the titular caregiver-robot is a tool or an accidental being. This was an amazing story that gave a wonderful sense of the alienness of a robot consciousness, while still allowing us to care about it. And, most importantly for this story, a reason that it was a robot and nothing else.


10 thoughts on “Science-Fiction Rant: Why I Hate Robots

  1. Here’s a robo-psychology question for you. What if a machine must feel pain in order to be alive? Pain and pleasure drive so much of our meat processes. Perhaps in order to create an intelligence that can relate to us (and operate in the physical world like a human and not a bulldozer) pain receptors are an essential part of the equation.

    • Now, see? THAT is exactly the sort of question that would make an excellent robot story of the “Let’s deliberately create a being” type! I’d LOVE to read that story. I’ve never seen anyone dare to write it, though.

    • I can see adding “pain circuits” as a trigger for “avoid doing stuff that will damage your valuable or difficult-to-replace equipment”. So voltage, pressure, heat, etc. above a certain threshold would be interpreted as “pain”, that is, something to be recognised, withdrawn from, and avoided in the future.

      Which isn’t all that different from how pain functions in humans.

      But torturing a robot is still just weird.

  2. Don’t forget the unofficial fifth category: “Robots Are Black People”, where the audience is meant to draw a connection between metallic menial laborers with no free will or autonomy and an oppressed minority group, all while doing mental gymnastics to avoid any patronizing and offensive implications that get in the way.

    Examples include:

    * Detroit: Become Human
    * Ex Machina
    * Chappie
    * Short Circuits 1 and 2
    * That one story in EC Comics where the astronaut is a black dude.

    • I see that trope as being a combination and subset of tropes 3 and 4 above: we made these robots just so we could A1) abuse them and/or B1) we made these robots to do our menial work but A2) we didn’t ever think that superstrong brutalized beings might revolt because we’re morons and/or B2) oh, look we didn’t think to stop them from becoming self-aware because we’re a slightly higher class of moron.
      I actually thought the story from EC that you referred to was pretty groundbreaking for the time: the major difference being that the “races” of robots were oppressing each other, not being oppressed by humans (so they DID have free will), and this was a way in which the publishers could criticize the racism of that era effectively.

  3. Well now I’m going to have to write a story about robot fairies, just to piss you off.

    (Come to think of it, I kind of already have–“The Happiest Place On Earth” is about a plague that wipes out the human race and the androids at an amusement park trying to find a purpose for their lives now that the people are gone.)

    • Nothing would make me happier. I LOVE shit that makes me see old tropes in new ways. One of the reasons I hate these tropes is that I find them limited. They just keep coming back to the same old places. But you figure out how to go somewhere NEW with them? That’s gold. Hell, I try to do it myself all the time. One of my favorite stories was the second one I ever sold, called “Requiem With Interruptions,” which was a rewrite of a Babylon 5 episode that had really pissed me off through being old, tired and judgmental.

Leave a Reply to MishaBurnett Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s