Nerdy Saturday: Why are we so obsessed with living robots?

I recently watched a video on the YouTube channel NerdSync about whether or not the Marvel character The Vision is actually alive and conscious or if he’s merely a robot faking it. I strongly recommend that you check out this and other NerdSync videos as they cover a lot of comic-related issues such as continuity problems, hypotheses (“fan theories”) about popular characters and stories, and, such in the case of the above video, philosophy and how it relates to the world of comics. You don’t have to watch this video to get what I’m saying in this blog post, but it does provide a lot more information on philosophy of the mind and robotics than what I’m covering here—such as duality, physicalism and the Turing Test.

There has been a long running theme of living robots (or androids, or sometimes just pieces of software) in science fiction. Perhaps one of the most famous is Data, the android from Star Trek: The Next Generation and related movies. There was some effort in the early seasons of the show to establish that he is indeed alive and self-aware, culminating in the episode The Measure of a Man. In this popular episode of the series, Data is put on trial to prove that he is alive and deserves the full rights and treatment as any Starfleet officer. The judge ultimately rules in his favor, reasoning that because those who interact with him feel about him as they do anybody else (in other words, eh passes the Turing Test), there’s no more or less proof that he has a “soul” than anybody else. The same theme has been explored throughout the Star Trek franchise, particularly holograms.*

Another prominent franchise that features living robots is The Transformers. Depending on the continuity, the storytellers sometimes go through great lengths to show that the Cybertronians are alive—with explanations ranging from something simple as the narrator saying “they’re alive” to the more complicated story lines of the Beast era. In the latter instance we actually see Transformers’ souls, known as “sparks” in fiction. The spark would inhabit what is known as a “spark crystal” and bring the robot body to life. Beast Machines in particular had a story lines which proved that while as “shell program” could be installed in the robot body dominating the personality, the true personality of the spark could be brought to the surface—demonstrating that in the Transformers multiverse, the soul is the mind, which is a physical presence, creating a sort of hybrid of duality and physicalism.

There are other instances of living robots in science fiction, such as Marvin the Paranoid Android, Kryten from Red Dwarf, possibly the droids from Star Wars and so on.** But why are we so obsessed with the idea of living robots? Why does it matter? In individual cases, there are specific reasons Data defines what it means to be alive. The Transformers are made more relate-able to kids so the toys are easier to sell. But is there a larger reason that we want robots to be alive? perhaps it has nothing to do with the robots themselves. By defining this other, unlikely creature as alive we learn more about what it means to be alive ourselves. Or it could simply have something to do with our speculation of someday creating beings that can think for themselves. There’s much on this to ponder, and I don’t have the time or space to look into it for this blog. But it’s worth thinking about.

*The motif of putting a main character or trial has been repeated in the Star Trek franchise: once, in Voyager, in which the Doctor fights for his rights as an author, citing Data’s case as a precedent; another time was when Jadzia Dax on Deep Space Nine was put on trial for a murder case involving the former host of of the symbient that not only combines mentally with its humanoid host but remembers its past “lives” as well. The latter case doesn’t fit into the larger theme of this blog post, but it is interesting to note that we never resolve the nature of Jadzia Dax’s mind as a the case was dismissed. In the case of the former, the Doctor lost the case, but it is clear that the rest of the crew consider him a fully alive and self-aware member of the crew throughout the series.

**I know I’m leaving out a lot, especially when it comes to literature. But I didn’t have time to research a more thorough list for this blog. I’m sure a quick search on the Internet for “robots in science fiction” would suffice. Besides, while I’m a fan of science fiction in general, and an avid reader, my exposure to actual science fiction literature is rather scant.


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