The (Care) Robot in Science Fiction – A Monster or a Tool for the Future?

By Aino-Kaisa Koistinen

Quite recently, care robots have begun an invasion into our lives and have given rebirth to the hopes and concerns considering both utopian and dystopian technological futures. When introducing a new generation of service robots in our daily lives, it is therefore interesting and important to consider how they have already been imagined in science fiction, as these imaginations can be used to make visible the problems as well as promises inherent in close relationships between humans and machines. The main motivation of this short introduction to science fiction is to enhance dialogue on the human and non-human dimensions of robots.

 Technological Imaginations in Our Lives

According to Kai Mikkonen, Ilkka Mäyrä and Timo Siivonen, as our lives are so pervaded with technology, it is important to ask questions considering human relations to technology and the boundaries between us and the various technological appliances that we interact with on a daily basis:

For example, as pacemakers and contact lenses technology has become such an intimate thing that it can be said to be a foundational aspect of our humanity. It is hard, or even impossible, to understand the meaning of our human existence if the role of machines in our humanness is not taken into account. Pointedly, we can ask: ‘Are we humans machines – or at least turning into ones?’ Or in reverse: ‘Can machines become humans, thinking and feeling beings?’

What is essential is not how realistic or believable the assumptions considering humanization of machines or the mechanization of humans inherent to these questions are. What is essential is that these questions are asked altogether. (Mikkonen, Mäyrä and Siivonen 1997, 9, transl. Aino-Kaisa Koistinen, emphasis added.)

There is one fictional genre, that of science fiction, that is particularly suitable for asking these kinds of questions. Indeed, science fiction, as the name of the genre already suggests, is preoccupied with the imaginations of scientific explorations. These explorations are often realized through stories of technology, such as different kinds of robotic creatures. Moreover, the very core of science fiction is the imagining of possible worlds and futures that are not mimetically bound to the world that we live in yet often comment on contemporary cultural phenomena. Robots and technology are, indeed, usually used in the genre to discuss topical fears and anxieties – but also hopes – considering technological developments.

Today science fiction’s technological imaginations and the technological developments that we face in our lived realities seem to resemble each other more than ever before, making it important to study these connections between science fiction and science facts. Indeed, many of the current technological developments have been imagined in science fiction well before they turned into the reality of today, making the genre an important platform for speculating on new technologies and their possible effects on humanity.

Quite recently, one of science fiction’s imaginations, that of the care robot, is quickly turning into our lived reality. When introducing these kinds of robots in our daily lives we need to consider how they have already been imagined in science fiction, as these imaginations can be used to make visible the problems as well as promises inherent in close relationships between humans and machines.

The Genealogy of Robots

Before presenting some examples of science fiction’s care robots and the pressing cultural questions they pose, we need to consider the history of fictional robots. The term robot was developed and popularized by Czech author Karel Čapek in his play ‘R.U.R.’ (‘Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti’, engl. ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’) in 1921. The term is derived from the Czech word robota referring to the work performed by slaves. In Čapek’s play, robots are humanoids or androids (i.e. they appear human) that eventually turn against their human masters. Although the term ‘robot’ usually refers to technology as a tool designed for the use of humans, science fiction stories often represent robots that develop beyond mere tools and rebel against their creators. As such, they represent a typical theme of the genre – technological developments gone too far, making these robots monstrous and threatening figures.

There is, however, an even longer tradition of imagining scientifically or technologically constructed creatures that can be traced back to at least the 18th Century, when the constructing of automatons created in the human form were a fashionable past-time in Europe. In the Jewish tradition, we can also find stories of the Golem, a humanoid constructed from clay, that date back to the early modern period. In 1818, Mary Shelley famously imagined the Frankenstein’s monster – a human-like creature constructed by a mad scientist – which has become one of the staples of Western popular culture, and is probably one of the most known stories of science and technology gone too far. Shelley’s novel is, in fact, often considered the first science fiction novel, where gothic themes merged with the more science-fictional themes of science and technology.

Since Frankenstein, different kinds of robots, androids and cyborgs (i.e. hybrids of technology and flesh) have taken the popular culture by storm as monstrous creatures. In 1927, the humanoid robot Hel/Maria (played by Brigitte Helm) tantalized human men with her erotic performances in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, making it clear that when a robot gains a human form, it cannot escape the questions of gender and sexuality. This theme had, however, already emerged in, for instance, L’Eve Future by Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (1886). The novel presents us with a narrative of the replacement of a human woman by a more perfect machine copy – and it also popularized the term android.

This idea of replacing the human, and the woman in particular, has since been seen in films like the aforementioned Metropolis and Stepford Wives (dir. Ira Levin 1975), and has remained one of the most often articulated fears in science fiction. Moreover, the developments of robots are connected to the fears of replacing human beings also in the very literal sense that they replace human workers in factories – and now, more recently, in care – both in science fiction and in our everyday reality.

Human-Like Robots as Scary and Hopeful Monsters

Later, in the 1970s, cyborgs such as the Bionic Man and the Bionic Woman – and even their companion, the Bionic Dog – represented more hopeful imaginations of technology. These cyborgs were technologically improved with ‘bionic’ limbs which saved their lives. In the 1970s prosthetic limbs were being explored upon in medicine, and these bionic creatures showcased the popular culture where this sort of human betterment might eventually lead. Indeed, since the 1970s, synthetic organs (that are aptly called bionic) have now been attached to living human beings.

The most memorable human-like robots in the 1980s must be those seen in Terminator (James Cameron 1984) and RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven 1987) that offer us hyper-masculine male machines in contrast to the sexualized females of L’Eve Future, Metropolis and Stepford Wives. Also, who could forget the humanoid Replicants of Blade Runner (Ridley Scott 1981), that represented the machines as thinking and feeling creatures, as almost human beings? These two aspects, the capability of independent rational thought and emotion have, in fact, been popular ways to differentiate humans from machines in science fiction – but also to question this differentiation.

Since the 2000s, popular culture’s machines and other technological monsters have been created as more and more complex creatures and, also, more and more like us humans. Machines in, for example, Battlestar Galactica (2004–2009) are intelligent and emotional beings can pass for human and therefore also offer more varied representations of gendered embodiments than many of the narratives considering humanoid machines before them. In these narratives, the robot monster can also be a hopeful one, a creature that is guiding us towards a better tomorrow. Even though monsters are commonly understood as something to be feared, they can also be sources of great promise and hope and help us to think about what we otherwise cannot think about (as a colleague of mine, Line Henriksen, put it at the “Monsters in Art” event organized by the Monster Network at Stavanger library in April 28, 2016).

This history of science fiction shows us that we as humans have always been fascinated by creating the machine in our own image. Perhaps this is a sort of God-complex, or perhaps we are just so perplexed about our own humanity, that we feel the need to re-create our image through technology in order to understand our humanness. Be it as it may, science fiction’s stories make visible the problems that are inherent in making the machine in our own image. That is, the question of representation: In whose image should we create these machines that, as they become humanoids, also embody markers of, for example, gender, ethnicity, age, ability/disability and class. In this sense, creating humanoid robots is a deeply normative process, where we are reproducing what we consider a ‘proper’ human being.

This creates an interesting connection between science fiction and the care robots of today. Judging from the news there seems to be two strands in the development of care robots: creating robots that appear like humans or are, in some way, relatable as human-like figures (i.e. have a recognizable head, limbs and torso, even though they clearly could not pass for human), and the creation of robots that are designed to appear more like machines.

Science Fiction and the Questions of Care

Finally, I wish to present you with a few examples of science fiction’s care robots and the sort of cultural allusions that they evoke. In the genre, robots and other machines have quite often been imagined as doctors, medical assistants, cleaners, nurses and all-around helpers. A well-known example of this all-around-helper is the popular Robbie the Robot in the 1956 film Forbidden Planet (dir. Fred M. Wilcox). Like science fiction’s other robots, these care robots, too, can be sources of promise or anxiety. Very recently at least two audio-visual science fiction productions have discussed care robots in a manner that resonates with contemporary discussions of care; the Swedish television series Äkta Människor (2012–2014) and the film Robot & Frank (Jake Schreier, 2012). Both of these productions raise questions, such as, who decides what kinds of care does an elderly person need, and who defines what is ‘the right kind of’ care?

Both Äkta Människor and Robot & Frank frame their discussion of care mainly around an elderly man and his robot aid or companion – or companions in the case of Äkta Människor. What is different between the series and the film is that in the series these care robots (that are, interestingly enough, called Hubots) are human-like in their appearance, whereas the robot in Robot & Frank is (even though relatable in the sense of having a torso, limbs and a head, and speaking in a human-like voice) is significantly more like a machine.

In Äkta Människor, the human appearance also brings forth questions of gender and the gendered labour of care. The old man, Lennart (played by Sten Elfström) is initially happy with his male companion robot Odi (Alexander Stocks). However, as Odi malfunctions, Lennart is faced with the harsh reality of having to purchase a new companion. His family chooses a new, more efficient model, a female robot called Vera (Anki Larsson). Vera is a stereotypical representation of feminine care; an old, plump woman with an apron and a strict expression. Lennart and Vera, nevertheless, do not get along, which explicitly articulates the question if the person receiving care has the right to choose what sort of care they want.

Similarly to Lennart and Vera, Frank is initially unhappy with the care robot that his son purchases for him. In both Äkta Människor and Robot & Frank we nevertheless also see a bonding between a human and a machine. Although Lennart never really gets used to Vera, he considers his other robot, Odi, as a friend. In the film, Frank also grows fond of his robot. In both productions, the men finally also lose their companion robots, making visible the powerlessness of these old men in terms of deciding for their own care.

These sort of discussions are highly relatable to the Finnish context today. Recently the Finnish national broadcasting company YLE released news concerning how certain Finnish cities are considering replacing the personal assistants of people with severe disabilities with a different sort of care – a ‘family carer’. Unlike the personal assistant, these family carers are not allowed to leave the apartment where they work, significantly limiting the mobility of their clients with, who cannot go outside without their assistants. What, then, would happen, if these family carers were replaced by machines? Would it bring more or less freedom to people in need of constant care?

Both Äkta Människor and Robot & Frank ultimately leave it open, whether the care robot is a dreadful or hopeful monster, or merely a tool for humans to use in our increasingly technological future. With fictional narratives we are nevertheless able to speculate the problems and possibilities of these emerging technologies. These speculations can surely offer useful information also to the persons designing actual (care) robots today. To return to the quote by Mikkonen, Mäyrä and Siivonen: ‘What is essential is not how realistic or believable the assumptions considering humanization of machines or the mechanization of humans inherent to these questions are. What is essential is that these questions are asked altogether.’ And this is something science fiction can certainly do.

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I would like to thank my colleagues at the Monster Network, Ingvil Hellstrand, Line Henriksen, Donna McCormack and Sara Orning, for fruitful discussions considering monsters and the monstrous – especially Ingvil and Sara on their insights on Äkta Människor. I am also grateful for my colleague Iiris Lehto for helping me with the terminology of care.


 

Dr. Aino-Kaisa Koistinen is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Jyvaskyla, Finland. In 2015, she defended her PhD thesis on science fiction television at the University of Jyvaskyla (Contemporary Culture Studies). She currently works in the Finnish sub-project of The World Hobbit project, Uses of Fantasy. She is the Vice Chair of FINFAR – Finnish Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy Research and one of the Editors-in-chief of Fafnir – Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy Research. She is one of the organizers of the international Monster Network and an affiliate member of the Posthumanities Hub (Linköping University, Sweden).

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Selected references and further reading:

Haraway, Donna J. 1985: A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s. Socialist Review 80, 65–108.

Donna J. Haraway (1992), The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others, in Cultural Studies, ed. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula A. Treichler (New York; Routledge), 295–337.

Hellstrand, Ingvil 2015: Passing as Human: Posthuman Worldings at Stake in Contemporary Science Fiction. Stavanger: University of Stavanger, 2015 (PhD thesis UiS, no. 244).

Juhola, Teemu 2016: Tämä kaunotar on robotti – Jia Jia liikkuu, puhuu ja ilmeilee. Tutkijoiden mukaan Kiinassa tehty Jia Jia -robotti voisi toimia palveluammatissa. YLE 25 April 2016. http://yle.fi/uutiset/tama_kaunotar_on_robotti__jia_jia_liikkuu_puhuu_ja_ilmeilee/8835943 (accessed 5 May 2016).

Koistinen, Aino-Kaisa 2015: The Human Question in Science Fiction Television: (Re)Imagining Humanity in Battlestar Galactica, Bionic Woman and V. Jyväskylä Studies in Humanities 248. Jyväskylän yliopisto. Available at: http://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-951-39-6147-3.

Koistinen, Aino-Kaisa 2015: Real Humans (Äkta Människor). DVD review. Science Fiction Film and Television vol. 8:3/2015, 414–418.

Koistinen, Aino-Kaisa 2014: Mitä jos Vera-hoitaja onkin joskus totta? Tieteisfiktio tarjoaa näkökulmia todellisuuteen, tulevaisuuteen – ja ihmisyyteen. Keskisuomalainen, 16.8.2014, 19.

Koistinen, Aino-Kaisa 2013: Miten konesydän sykkii? Ruotsalainen Hubotit – melkein ihmisiä ei pelkää kysyä isoja kysymyksiä. Kaltio 6/2013, 29–31.

Mikkonen, Kai, Ilkka Mäyrä and Timo Siivonen 1997 (toim.): Koneihminen – kirjoituksia kulttuurista ja fiktiosta koneen aikakaudella. Jyväskylä: Atena Kustannus Oy.

Pihlman, Olga 2016: Uudenlaiset robotit tekevät yhteistyötä ihmisten kanssa. YLE 21 April 2016. http://yle.fi/uutiset/uudenlaiset_robotit_tekevat_yhteistyota_ihmisten_kanssa/8828416?ref=leiki-uu (accessed 5 May 2016).

Seppänen, Timo 2016: Vaikeavammainen Mikael Jordan taistelee saadakseen pitää avustajansa – Ankara kiista Vantaan kaupungin kanssa. YLE, 1 May 2016. http://yle.fi/uutiset/vaikeavammainen_mikael_jordan_taistelee_saadakseen_pitaa_avustajansa__ankara_kiista_vantaan_kaupungin_kanssa/8848482 (accessed 5 May 2016).

 


 

This text was originally posted at the University of Tampere website.

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