The third season of Westworld premieres this week, as HBO’s dystopian future show moves out of the amusement park to the outside world. But the core theme remains the same: robots, designed to look exactly like humans, grapple with the ethics of artificial life and programming. When Czech writer Karel Čapek invented the term “robot” in 1920, a full century ago, he was wrestling with similar concepts – his play R.U.R. that introduced the term was about artificial people created to serve humans that eventually turned on them. With a hundred years of science fiction to pore through, we wanted to trace the development of robots that pass for human through a few key creations.
Of all the legends of science fiction, Isaac Asimov did more than almost anybody to examine the myriad ramifications of mechanical life. His 1946 short story “Evidence” is a great place to start. In it, a young politician named Stephen Byerley is confronted by the accusation that he is actually a robot, barred from running for office. His opponent attempts to prove it, trying to force the man to violate one of the Three Laws of Robotics, but Byerley remains one step ahead of him, always able to plant some doubt in witnesses. It’s a very clever and compelling story about how telling the difference without impinging on civil rights is a slippery slope to walk.
Osamu Tezuka was one of the greatest factories of ideas the manga world has ever seen, churning out a never-ending stream of classics throughout his four-decade career. Tetsuwan Atom, known in the West as Astro Boy, premiered in 1952. The titular character was a humanoid robot built in the shape of a young boy by Dr. Tenma. Astro is different from many of the other robots in his world because he is capable of human emotions, making him a devoted ally to humanity fighting evil with myriad robotic abilities, including a set of machine guns housed in his buttcheeks.
First appearing in the pages of The Avengers in 1968, the “synthezoid” known as the Vision changed the way robots would be portrayed in comics. While his crimson skin and pupil-less eyes won’t pass for an ordinary Joe, it was what was inside the android Avenger that made him different from yout average robot. Created by the villainous Ultron to battle Hank Pym and his team, the Vision breaks free of his control and goes on to become one of the most valuable members of the Avengers. His romance with the mutant Scarlet Witch allowed Marvel to touch on complex topics like prejudice and free will throughout the 1970s, and the character still stars in interesting comics today.
The Stepford Wives
This 1975 black comedy classic probed just how difficult it could be to tell a real person from a fake one, even if it’s the love of your life. In the suburban town of Stepford, all of the women are beautiful and devoted to their husbands. When a new couple from New York moves in, the wife quickly discovers that she doesn’t fit in. That’s because the Stepford wives are all robots, brought in by the local Men’s Association to replace their flawed, aging human originals. It was a clever commentary on the ongoing Women’s Lib movement that showed the soul-destroying conformity of the nuclear family.
Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi classic was one of the first pop culture hits to really delve into the narrowing gap between man and machine. Rick Deckard is an ex-cop hired to hunt down malfunctioning “replicants,” artificial people built with extraordinary capabilities to work in the inhumane conditions of off-world colonies. Replicants are so nearly indistinguishable from humans that a complex test to measure their emotional response to a series of questions is the only non-violent way to tell the difference, and as Deckard tracks his prey he finds out that they want the same things we do. The inherent ambiguity of whether Deckard himself is a replicant or not has occupied fans for nearly forty years.
Star Trek The Next Generation
The crew of the Enterprise has always prided itself on diversity, but in the 1987 reboot of Gene Roddenberry’s space-spanning series they added an artificial intelligence to the mix. Lt. Commander Data was a humanoid android discovered by Starfleet as the last survivor of a catastrophic attack on the Omicron Theta colony. His origins were a mystery until we learn that he was built by Doctor Noonien Soong as part of his research. Data’s struggle with human fallibility and eventual addition of an “emotion chip” allowed him to develop his character even further throughout the franchise.
After Stanley Kubrick passed away, Steven Spielberg took the helm of his final project. 2001’s A.I. postulated a world where the world’s population has been drastically reduced. We meet David, an artificial little boy who is given to a family whose son has been placed in suspended animation for a disease that has no known cure. When the real child is thawed out, David begins to feel emotions he wasn’t designed for and is abandoned by his new family. What follows is a quest for love and acceptance that makes you question the real difference between man and machine, and where the line can truly be drawn.
The original late 70s Galactica was tolerable space opera, but 2003’s reboot series transformed the source material into one of the most compelling sci-fi shows to ever hit the airwaves. After humans develop the mechanical race of Cylons to serve their every need, the artificial life eventually rebels and declares war. Although the majority of Cylons are metallic workers and soldiers, thirteen of them are created in human guises. Those sleepers might not even know that they are Cylons until activated. Although initially the Cylons fought to free themselves from bondage, by the time of the new series their struggle has evolved into a religious crusade, convinced that humans are flawed creations and need to be wiped from the universe.
Michael Crichton’s original novel (and the 1973 film that was based on it) were humanoid in appearance but that was about as far as it went – even when the Gunslinger and his cohorts malfunction, they’re not motivated by developing emotions, just warped programming. The series goes way deeper, though, with the artificial men and women in the Delos theme park being spurred by co-founder Robert Ford to achieve sentience on their own. The whole point of the experience is to allow people to do things to other “humans” that they would not be allowed to do in the real world, up to and including killing them, so it’s only natural that things would eventually go awry. Each season digs deeper into the moral and ethical questions around building AI that feels, and the third is guaranteed to blow a few minds along the way.