The best part about science fiction, besides the explosions, space explorations, and psychotic aliens is the fact that it reveals our most human fears. While they’re not flesh and bone, robots are arguably most emblematic of our anxieties: besides being smarter, faster, and (sometimes) shinier than us, “bad robots” are a scifi favorite because they reveal how obsolete we might be becoming—or already are.
In National Geographic Channel’s new futuristic series Year Million, scientists, theorists and science fiction creators grapple with how much artificial intelligence will help—or harm—humanity in the future. AI is already beating us at our own games, and as the show notes, even substituting as hotel staff. So are our fears of irrelevancy—which are time and again revealed in scifi films—really that unfounded? Why can’t we shake our fascination with bad robot movies, even if they scare the shit out of us in real life?
According to Lisa Yaszek, a professor in the school of literature, media, and communication at Georgia Tech, the answer goes back decades. “The word ‘robot’ comes from RUR—[the 1921 play] ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’—and the Czech word for a “slave laborer,” she explained. “In the play, we create these biological synthetic humans they call “robots” to do our work, and eventually the robots start killing us off because we’re not useful—we don’t do any work.”
Fears of changing social norms, especially surrounding labor, are often reflected in movies about robot doom. In “Rossum’s Universal Robots,” there’s a palpable fear that we’ve engineered something so well the world has no use for us anymore. We might as well be dead.
This anxiety is also pretty overt in 2001: A Space Odyssey, when Hal 9000 just won’t open the goddamn pod bay doors. There’s something chilling about dying at the hands of something we created to help us.
Robots are arguably most terrifying when they look like us. Arnold Schwarzennegger’s character in the first Terminator movie wanted to blast the shit out of us, for example. The replicants in Blade Runner—the freaky ones that looked like they were going to a Die Antwoord concert—were also pretty nefarious.
“There’s something uncanny about robots that appear in human form—to see images of ourselves that we know are not quite ourselves,” Yaszek said. “We’re fascinated with the way a robots can be used to represent what seems unnatural or scary about humanity itself.”
In addition to why we make evil robot movies, it’s interesting to consider when they come out. According to Yaszek, these kinds of movies come out in “clusters” during times of socioeconomic shift.
“There are the first robot plays and movies in the late ‘20s, when we’re moving from the progressive era into the Great Depression,” she said. “You get another batch of these in the ‘50s as you move out of a wartime economy into a peaceful one. Another big batch is during the ‘70s and ‘80s, and then we’re seeing it again today. That’s no surprise.”
Each one of these clusters reveals an unspoken fear indicative of the era they came from. The Stepford Wives came out in 1975, the height of second wave feminism, and was a movie about robots created to pose as powerful men’s trophy wives. “It’s no surprise that movie came out when people are were scared of women’s changing social and economic status,” Yaszek explained.
The 1984 release of Terminator unveiled a different flavor of anxiety as President Reagan proposed a Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). “As our own government began to build ‘Star Wars’—a computerized defense initiative—it’s no surprise that kind of modern military build up got tied into global economics,” Yaszek said. “That’s how you end up with SkyNet.”
With new advancements in AI, robot media is having another boom. Ex Machina, the upcoming Blade Runner sequel, and of course, Westworld are just a few movies and shows that have captivated us over the last few years. The sudden balloon of robot movies indicates we’re curious about where our future is headed—and that maybe we’re a little scared.
Maybe we can’t quit bad robots because underneath it all, we like the sensation of such a palpable, realistic fear. Robots represent an idealized vision of what humanity could be, if we weren’t so full of insecurities, flaws, and flesh. That kind of perfection is both aspirational and terrifying—but most of all, it makes for one hell of adversary.
Full disclosure: I used to be an intern at National Geographic Channel, and Gizmodo editor George Dvorsky is featured in ‘Year Million.’