One of the biggest letdowns for me about the film Wall-E was that all of the robots, save the evil navigator, were in some way visually anthropomorphic. They had hands, eyes, voices, that were unmistakably humanish. Pixar’s great mascot, Luxo Jr., managed to be lovable without these traits. There is a certain extra level of magic involved in making a great character that is utterly unrecognizable as human*. A key element in making a character inhuman, particularly scary robots, seems to be a single, red, cycloptic eye. HAL 9000, the grandfather of the Evil Red Eye, gave us the cylon, the Terminator’s exposed eye, and the aforementioned navigator from Wall-E, among a host of other, lesser progeny. But there are three notable exceptions to this rule that demonstrate how good characterization can overcome a trope.
Half-Life 2‘s Dog, Caprica‘s Serge, and Star Wars’ R2-D2 are robots that are almost immediately endearing, despite having single glowing eye (a la HAL) and an inhuman construction. Dog is a towering, immensely-strong, home-built hulk, Serge is a svelte, iPod-inspired, teardrop robot with a very classy demeanor, and R2 is basically a mailbox. None are recognizably human, though Dog is arguably mammalian (his knuckle lope is a mix of gorilla/chimp and giraffe locomotion). What is critical is that none have a face per se. Dog and R2 lack a voice, but are extremely expressive with their sounds (much like Wall-E and Luxo). Alternatively, Serge is utterly stoic, but has a weird lilt to his voice that makes him strangely likable. What is it that makes these characters work?
First, let’s take a quick look at humanoid lovable robots. Two examples that spring to mind are Mr. Butlertron from Clone High and Data from Star Trek: TNG. Both combine tropes of robots with human features. In terms of appearance, Data is fully human (and fully functional: WINK) in appearance, but has stark yellow eyes and inhumanely pale skin. Mr. Butlertron moves around on wheels, is visibly metal, has an antenna, and pincer hands, but also a mustache. Both wear clothing. Both Data and Mr. Butlertron have a robotic manner of speaking, with Mr. Butlertron being a bit auto-tuned and Data being stilted. It is all the more striking, then, that both are highly altruistic and affectionate. Mr. Butlertron gives great relationship advice and is loved by high schoolers, while Data demonstrates unwavering loyalty, selflessness, and kindness. Their lack of humanity is compensated by their immense interest in and love of humans and the human condition. They are easy to identify with and see as being essentially human.
Part of the reason we can understand Data and Mr. Butlertron at that level is because they can speak. Interestingly, the ability to speak actually reduces the visceral level of connection we have with the robotic character. In between the speaking androids (Data, Mr. Butlertron) and the one-eye non-hominids (Dog, R2, Serge) are non-speaking hominids like H.E.L.P.eR, the Iron Giant, and Wall-E. Ok, so the Iron Giant and Wall-E have like ten words in their combined vocabulary, but you get my point. The weird aspect of this is that the immediate emotional bond to these characters is increased by their simple form of communication. Because they are not appealing to our higher thought processes but instead to more rudimentary levels of communication – voice tone, body language, and direct action. When the Iron Giant picks up Hogarth mistaking him for dead, or when H.E.L.P.eR hugs Brock in forgiveness, or when Wall-E goes still after being electrocuted, the impact is in the gut. Did cry watching The Iron Giant or Wall-E? I bet you did. The ability to elicit empathy shows powerful characterization, despite a lack of speech. Ultimately, however, these characters are still humanoid, with distinguishable faces and humanish body shape. They’re still too easy to love; we requirest a little lower layer.
And thus we return to Dog, R2, and Serge. What is it that makes them so endearing? Not quite pets, for they are clearly independent and higher functioning, certainly not human, or even full persons. Yet Dog saves Gordon and Alyx and shows distress, much in the way R2 helps the rebels, antagonizes C-3po, and screams in pain. Serge, alternatively, is impossibly proper, a spoof on the reserved-to-the-point-of-repressed butler, his very construction echoing the stiff, arms-at-the-sides, up-right, stance. They look the way they act. Most importantly, unlike the other robots, from Data to Wall-E, Dog, R2, and Serge lack faces. In fact, each only has one eye, which, if we stretch “eye is the window to the soul” the metaphor a bit, might be said that the self of each of these robots lack the depth of their binocular brethren.
What we see in these characters are the artifices of humanity stripped away, and movement into the core of personhood. Each character’s styling as a robot, that is, as entities of pure function, is a very direct reflection of that character’s personality and level of personhood. All three levels of robots that I’ve discussed here, ranging from human-personhood androids, to complex-personhood hominid robots, to limited-personhood non-hominid robots, reflect that our society already understands the different levels at which an entity can have a sense of self, and that we visualized that through the amount of humanness portrayed in a given robot. While I haven’t finished the series yet, I’d be willing to make the guess that Cylons in the new BattleStar Galactica look fully human because they have absolute, full personhood, to the point of having a complex culture representing extended, external personhood.
Robots, as I’ve shown, are one of the best symbols our culture has for representing the degrees of personhood because they are pure function and pure construction.
*Want a real challenge? Write a story with a lovable, trustworthy, deeply intelligent and complex character (a monumental task in and of itself) that has no recognizable face or body. The closest thing I’ve found to that anywhere is The Luggage from Discworld.
AboutPop Bioethics, written by Kyle Munkittrick, is an effort to study the ethics of the continuing evolution of the human species via the lens of pop culture and be somewhat entertaining in the process.