Saturday, July 19, 2008

Animating the Inanimate

It wasn't the first time the thought had crossed my mind, but after watching WALL*E the other day it struck me once again how filmmakers utilized the whole "humanized machine" concept (To say nothing of the recurring "schlubby guy ends up with hot chick" theme which, despite the usual sitcom casting, is more rare than the norm...). Whether it's Herbie the Love Bug or WALL*E the robot, imbuing the mechanical with personality attributes such as loyalty, courage and even love has been a source of fascination for ages. It probably started long before the dish ran away with the spoon in the nursery rhyme of yore, but now with technology that can "think" and "talk", it's no wonder that writers indulge in creative conjecture by endowing gadgets and gizmos with a bit of heart and soul.

WALL*E, like many robot depictions, is capable of evincing human characteristics--like loneliness and love. Why is we humans like to believe our appliances have feelings? Believe me, while you may miss your iPod and laptop, neither has any idea that you've been gone! But like the Lost in Space robot, who had a wicked and twisted sense of humor as well as an abiding protectiveness of young Will Robinson, or the Transformers, who were either good or evil, robots are portrayed as more than a computer chip on wheels.

The Terminator in part two of the franchise brought Sarah and John Connor to tears when he "terminated" himself at the end. Well, maybe that's not too far from reality--I know I get a pang of anxiety when I see my car up on a mechanic's rack...When automated wife Cherry 2000 expired, it sent her human husband on a quest to find an exact replacement. Of course, he learned the lesson that was missed in The Stepford Wives--perfect isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Robots and computers can provide information--ala the Enterprise computer on Star Trek, comic relief--ala the Laurel and Hardy-esque antics of R2-D2 and C3Po in Star Wars or Hymie of Get Smart, or provide dramatic tension--as did HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I guess this isn't too far-fetched from real life either: I get info from Google and Wikipedia, comedy from YouTube and The Onion and my laptop has also provided some dramatic tension when it crashes.

One of the most basic human characteristics is the survival instinct. And this too has been incorporated into robot hardwiring. Number 5 of Short Circuit becomes sentient and escapes to avoid reprogramming, a group of Nexus-6 replicants fight for their lives in Blade Runner and it's robot run amok in both Westworld, Futureworld and I, Robot. I wish my gadgets had similar survival instincts. They seem set to expire right after the warranty does!

What is so odd isn't the attempts to make machines seem human, it's when the machines want TO BE human. Once upon a time, Pinocchio wished upon a star to become a real boy and The Velveteen Rabbit yearned to be real as well. Steven Spielberg adapted Brian Aldiss' short story, Supertoys Last All Summer Long, into the story of an android Pinocchio who longed to be a real boy. Data of Star Trek: The Next Generation was another android who longed for the human experience, as was Andrew Martin of Bicentennial Man.

But why would an android long to be human? Certainly, we are severely flawed creatures. And yet, even knowing our pettiness, our weakness, our frailties and foibles, we create characters who long to be us. Makes no sense to me whatsoever. The philosophy of Gigolo Joe in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence seems more realistic to me:

You are neither flesh, nor blood. You are not a dog, a cat or a canary. You were designed and built specific, like the rest of us. And you are alone now only because they tired of you, or replaced you with a younger model, or were displeased with something you said, or broke. They made us too smart, too quick, and too many. We are suffering for the mistakes they made because when the end comes, all that will be left is us. That's why they hate us, and that is why you must stay here, with me.
I guess writers instill machines with humanity as part of the exploration of what it is to be human. Funny how many of those machines are far more humane than many humans are...

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