[This post will have many references, and no spoilers].
I’ve taken time to pause from my obsession with mecha anime typology (super robot vs. real robot) to consider robots in anime… the non-galactic-busting, turn you into a God or a Demon kind; neither did I think of the mobile suit kind. I’m talking about the kind that sells you soda or takes a picture for you (Macross), or tries to be your friend (Tetsuwan Atom); the kinds that are run by an artificial intelligence that can make people afraid of them. I myself am not sure what to make of it, hence this meditation. I merely warn you that at the end of this I may not be within the vicinity of anything that looks like a conclusion. However, I will attempt to be entertaining.
Even as I distinguish my subject, I can’t help but start from mecha anime. And in mecha anime I considered the writing of Owen when he distinguished sub genres within mecha shows:
The Symbiote has the mecha possessing varying levels of sentience — in anime like these the focus inevitably lies with or on the mecha, which is regarded as a separate character. The protagonist will then form a bond with said mecha, whether physical, psychological, or, in Evangelion’s case, Oedipal; cue existential monologues and/or insights into said pilot’s psyche throughout the series. Shows that fall into this category include FLCL, Brain Powerd, Rahxephon, Gigantic Formula.
Then there’s the Vehicle mecha, which is the subset that Code Geass falls into. Like its namesake, it basically uses the mecha as a means to an end — it’s first and foremost a means by which to resolve conflict, also usually a driving point of the show. Instead of the mecha-centric emphasis that the Symbiote subset falls into, the focus here lies on the pilot or faction that said pilot belongs to. Shows that fall into this category include the Gundam and Macross series, Vandread, Overman King Gainer, Bokurano.
—Owen “Code Geass as the Pinnacle of Mecha: A Two-fold Victory of Magnificence” (2007/08/12)
For the record, I do not agree with Owen that Code Geass is the pinnacle of mecha anime. However I do find his distinction interesting. For the purpose of this meditation I’m more interested in his idea of sentience. In these kinds of shows, we’ll see that the robots however sentient are still piloted. It’s the symbiotic relationship that allows for narrative resolution, as neither pilot nor machine can do much by themselves. An exception perhaps exists in Gao Gai Gar, where some of the braves in the Gutsy Geoid Guard/Gutsy Galaxy Guard are unpiloted and sentient giant robots, and the lead character Guy Shishioh himself is arguably a non-human.
It’s a stretch, but I will compare him to Maj. Kusanagi Motoko, of Ghost in the Shell. The Major is a woman on the cusp of discovering a new evolutionary path that is to ‘merge’ with a pure AI. GitS is a good source of exploratory writing on AI and robotics, where one can find interesting reflections on how threatening or amusing we find intelligence borne out of our own artifice. It is interesting to note that in the manga and movie we find that the most humanoid robots are but dolls (not unsimilar to the human dolls in Darker than Black), functioning and interacting with humans but without sentience. While the most curious of sentiences can be found in the ridiculously cute Tachikoma.
It is remarkable that the human-looking non-sentient robots are said to be easily confused and befuddled by these robot tanks. It is also said that they’ve discussed this among themselves, noting that humans will be intimidated by androids or humanoid robots having sentience, but will be more accepting of adorable, non-human robots like themselves having sentience.
There is something to this! I can feel it!
Elves in Tolkien fantasy are not feared except by the most backward of races/cultures. They are venerated by the more enlightened as some kind of angelic superior race. And they are superior to humans — in terms of power, hardiness, and longevity. Robots take on this role in some way in Asimov’s Foundation series, but they do so behind the scenes and for the most part are lost in legend. As a contrast, in Frank Herbert’s Dune series there is even a fundamental (and religious) law that prohibits anyone from making a machine with the likness of the human mind.
Is this fear biological? Is it a genetic trait? I’m not sure. We treat pets as if they were human — giving them human names and assigning them human emotions. In poetry we romanticize inanimate objects into behaving like humans (Forests sigh, and flowers smile); in robot movies we find EVE and Wall-E adorable, but Agent Simith, not so much. This has been the subject of much science fiction literature and sci-fi cinema, and will be featured again in upcoming summer movies like the Transformers and Terminator sequels. In Transformers you find both fearsome and uh, adorable varieties of robots. In Terminator the premise is that there is a robot that believed itself to be human, and may throw its lot with the persecuted humans. But I wonder which kind actually scares people more.
I think that giant evil robots are fearsome because they are giant, evil, and powerful; not because they are robots. The human looking guy from accross the room filing our taxes may creep us out because it is a robot, something more powerful than us, with unknown motivations, incapable of error. But if it were another human, perhaps evil, powerful in the ways human beings are powerful, we may still feel fear; but it won’t be the same.
Guy and The Major may be almost completely mechanical, but it somehow reassures us to know they were human once. This former humanity somehow makes us believe that they’ll remain human no matter how many body parts become mechanized, no matter how many parts become inorganic. Isaac Asimov was very prolific about robots and they were a big theme in his science fiction. His most noted contribution is the formulation of “The Three Laws of Robotics,” which states:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
—Isaac Asimov “Runaround” (1942)
These laws are designed to protect humans from their own creations. This should alleviate the fear somewhat. In the world of Tetsuwan Atom, which I currently enjoy through Urasawa Naoki’s Pluto, robots are given similar laws that are supposed to govern their behavior. However, they are still held by many to be dangerous and to be feared. I do think that the laws of robotics as stated by Asimov and alluded to by Urasawa (and perhaps Tezuka Osamu himself) are rooted in a particular view of robots: that of a tool, a machine in the service of humans. Asimov himself shares the basis of his robot laws:
- A tool must be safe to use. (hammers have handles, screwdrivers have hilts)
- A tool must perform its function efficiently unless this would harm the user.
- A tool must remain intact during its use unless its destruction is required for its use or for safety
—Isaac Asimov “Robot Visions” (2001)
This becomes my problem with the world of Atom, where robots have been given rights as sentient individuals. Under current real-world laws (which may vary from nation to nation): humans, organizations, or the state itself have rights to property and it is illegal for individuals to harm the property of another. In the world of Atom, robots are in service but are not necessarily the property of those who employ them. This is an interesting problem I think. If individual robots have rights, it could also mean that they have rights to resources to maintain their existence/performance/function; resources that I as a human being may have a right to as well. But are our rights equal?
In Pluto, robots have apartment units. They have property! Atom or Pluto are not utopias. Conflict happens, which means there will be humans who have less resources to go on, or less access to resources compared to some robots. There could be a case when I would like to live in a certain apartment, but find out that the available units are occupied by robots. Where would I live? Somewhere inferior, less suited to my needs and less enabling of my pursuit of happiness? What of the jobs they are doing that I can’t be hired for anymore? After all, they’re far more efficient than I am, can’t be lazy like I will be from time to time, won’t lie or steal from them, or harm the co-workers and employers in every way. It kind of sucks for me doesn’t it? But it isn’t as easy and clear as that. I could be one of these kids:
Here we have a Brando, successful ‘career’ robot (some kind of wrestler) that, instead of acquiring the trappings of success (to imitate humans) he and his robot wife (I know not of human-robot romantic/marriage relationships in Pluto or Atom) adopted one human orphan after another. I can’t help but think how awesome these robots will be as parents. And if I were one of these kids, I won’t be able to thank my lucky stars enough.
Suddenly it’s not so easy to think this through. Brando’s family makes for a great case for coexistence between human and AI robots. But I’m not going to say that it wins the argument. Furthermore, I suspect that people won’t mind so much if powerful robots would look like these:
I do think that there’s a kind of robotics that I won’t mind: that of a physical and intelligence augmentation (for myself, of course), something similar to what the Major has in GitS. I won’t mind being a cyborg, especially if it would increase my synchronicity levels with sentient mecha like those of Evangelion, Eureka SeveN, or even Gurren Lagann itself. But as to the moral complexities of creating superior humans, prolonging one’s own life unnaturally while others end prematurely; competing with future generations for resources… I don’t think I can address these. Not here, anyway.
But there is one consideration: to merge everyone’s consciousness — Gattai, like Evangelion’s ‘Third Impact’ where all of our psychological moats (the AT Fields) disappear and we become one, or even just a shared consciousness from the ‘Trans-Am Burst’ in Gundam 00. The reasoning behind this is that there is no conflict, or at least a more than significantly reduced conflict if all decisions are mutual ones, or if the decider is a singular entity. Our physical forms become less relevant, but I won’t pretend that this fantasy resolves the issues at all. To wish for a neat resolution is just me being human, all too human.