Robots the Way They Shouldn't Be: The Black Hole and Other Sci-Fi Creations

V.I.N.C.E.N.T. from The Black Hole
The Black Hole is a strange movie. I suppose it was Disney's answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey. I watched it in pretty much the same way--or rather, I non-watched it in pretty much the same way. It was on . . . while I was somewhere in my apartment cleaning, cooking, and feeding my cats.

I'm not going to review it because that would be unfair--to me, since I'd have to actually real-watch the film first.

But I do want to issue a complaint. What is up with non-humanoid looking robots? There are SOOOO boring.

Okay, Hal isn't so much but then Hal is more of a horror concept than a character. What I fail to find even slightly interesting are clunky robots like Vincent (The Black Hole) or Number 5 (Short Circuit) or Robby the Robot. Roddy McDowell all by himself would have been more interesting in the first case. And the second two are far from cuddly (and highly irritating). 

What makes Vincent from The Black Hole doubly odd is that for its time period, the other special effects of the movie are fairly impressive. Even a sci-fi film today would deserve praise for The Black Hole's bridge. (Take note, George Lucas--not every vista has to look two-dimensional.)

So why use such a clunky protagonist like Vincent--especially with the cutsey eyes? Look at him next to the comparatively sleeker robots: aren't they about two billion times more interesting?

The one major exception (with a few minor ones) is, of course, R2D2. This is because R2D2 and C-3PO (a humanoid robot) operate together as a joke. R2D2 is the straight man to C-3PO's antics. The visual IS the joke.

The same is true of Wall-e: he provides a visual joke.

The problem with the boring robots listed above is that they are supposed to be characters, not simply visual puns. They are expected to provide humorous moments, but no more or less than the human characters. Ultimately, the audience is supposed to take them seriously. There is a very, very good reason to choose a Data over a Robby the Robot when you want someone who can deliver both humor and seriousness without engendering a rolling of eyes.

Asimov was right. Asimov is always right.
Asimov's Giskard


Eugene said...

My favorite robot species is the Tachikoma from Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. They resemble big blue spiders with wheels, not at all humanoid.

Not only are they eminently practical machines (they function as single-man armored personnel carriers or can engage their AIs to patrol solo), but are absolutely delightful characters. Although manufactured with identical components and programming, each one evolves a distinct personality over the series, much to the consternation of their operators (who don't help matters by treating them as individuals).

Dan said...

Robots without personality are just machines and machines are boring unless they are trying to kill you, like in Terminator or 2001 Space Odyssey. To give a machine shape & motion is to give it personality. The other way to create personality is with words - such as KITT in Knight Rider. It will be interesting to observe how society deals with computer systems that are meant to have personality. I suppose it is only a matter of time when we will be able to choose the personality of the machine systems we interact with. Press 1 for Sarcastic. Press 2 for Endearing. Press 3 for Nonplussed. etc.

Katherine Woodbury said...

The capacity for humans to endow inanimate objects with personality is remarkable: we truly don't want to be alone!

In the Numb3rs episode "Traffic"--while discussing the nature of mathematical randomness versus colloquial randomness--Megan claims that her MP3 player on "random" mode prefers to play certain songs over others; its personality asserts itself.

Likewise, when I worked at the UM Law School, the copiers seemed to know exactly when a professor was in a hurry because that was the moment they decided to go on strike!

In truth, the rushing professor was likely not checking the settings, not making sure the page to be copied was set in the copier correctly, etc.--but it sure seemed like the copiers were sentient; it was in that job that I began to understand the problem of sentience: any complex object can take on the appearance of sentience simply due to its complexity, which is why I agree with Yuval Noah Harari that humans' ability to imagine the future is what sets us apart from other complex systems--only humans imagine there is a need for a bureaucracy, then go about creating one.

Speaking of robots and personality, there's always Press 4 for Marvin the Paranoid Android!