A Meditation on Robots, not mecha, ROBOTS!

tetsuwan atom cross section head

[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.

OwenCode 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.

ghost in the shell tachikoma circle halo

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.

gao gai gar ghost in the shell guy shishio motoko kusanagiI don’t think fear is the first thing that these two characters inspire in most people.

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:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Isaac AsimovRunaround” (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:

  1. A tool must be safe to use. (hammers have handles, screwdrivers have hilts)
  2. A tool must perform its function efficiently unless this would harm the user.
  3. A tool must remain intact during its use unless its destruction is required for its use or for safety

Isaac AsimovRobot 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:

pluto 07 09 brando gesicht 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:

pluto v15 06-07 atom uran human non-human lanes

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.


I would love to have referenced Eve no Jikan, but I haven’t seen more than one episode.
Tetsuwan Atom made me think of Pygmalion for some reason, but the better allusion is Pinocchio. (David Brothers 2009/05/20)
I recommend this foray into robot anime typology! (Vendredi 2009/04/20)
I talk real robot anime quite a bit, but none more than when I talked about FLAG [->]

About ghostlightning

I entered the anime blogging sphere as a lurker around Spring 2008. We Remember Love is my first anime blog. Click here if this is your first time to visit WRL.
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28 Responses to A Meditation on Robots, not mecha, ROBOTS!

  1. 0rion says:

    Good write-up; it’s always nice to see someone take the time to really lay out something more involved than a typical episode summary or 50 word reaction post.

    I kind of feel like you didn’t really develop any particular conclusion, and the points were kind of rambling and unfocused, but it was an interesting and thought provoking read nevertheless, and that’s what counts. 🙂

    Of course, the day that AI can actually approach the level of passing a true Turing test is still way, way off.

    • ghostlightning says:

      Thank you!

      I did warn that I was nowhere near a conclusion, or whether I could propose a workable ethics/plausible coexistence scenario between humans and AI, or even humans and enhanced humans via robotics.

      What I can conclude is the success of science fiction to provoke reflection re this issue among others related to science and technology.

      I actually don’t favor ‘cautionary tales’ as the cases of Macross Plus and Macross Frontier suggest. When the AI of Sharon Apple becomes too human, or when Grace O’Connor becomes too powerful via her ‘on-line’ existence and her robotic bodies — bad things happen. But these are cases where these characters are more plot devices rather than explorations so I’m not that bothered.

  2. Cuchlann says:

    Nice one!

    More along this line: Neuromancer (GitS is basically a development of its AI themes); throw a rock into PKDick’s library, but Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is the most obvious one; and finally, just the theory of the Uncanny Valley — that is, that the more humanlike technology (robots and even animation) gets, the more jarring and terrible it will appear. It explains why Pixar advances their techniques with each movie, but always use a non-realistic style for their characters.

    You know, I guess there are a lot of episode summaries in the otaku-rhombus, but I never read any of them. There are so many bloggers who actually write things, I forget it’s a supposed ill of the genre.

    Well, back to supernatural fiction lit/crit.

    • ghostlightning says:

      Thanks! And ditto for the recmmendations, I’ll look for them next time at the crack housebookstore, and explore the ideas you shared in future posts.

      Episodic summary posts are good for research while writing editorials. I wager it’s not just me who use them for this purpose.

      • Cuchlann says:

        Conversely, I need to check out several of the anime/manga you’re talking about here. I watched some of the Astro Boy update/reboot thing that aired on Adult Swim years ago, and liked it, but have yet to actually read/watch Astro Boy itself, despite wanting to.

        Oh, one I do know — what about the robotics of the Galaxy Express ouvre?

        • ghostlightning says:

          Look up animekritik’s heroic work on the Leijiverse! Also, I’d recommend the Pluto manga for a condensed but in-depth exploration of human-robot social dynamics.

          • animekritik says:

            On the robotics of Ge 999: in Matsumoto’s world there are bodies and there are souls. Most robots actually consist of human souls that have been transferred to mechanical bodies. The soul itself, as far as i can figure out, is pretty much equal to memories. The problem is that in the future memories can be copied, tweaked and altered, so what’s human and what’s a robot gets real messy real fast..

            In the 999 series there are clearly different sorts of robots, depending on how advanced the technology used is. I have only seen the first 20 eps of this show (now it’s licensed with crunchyroll and only for the US region) but the trend seems to be (paradoxically) that the more advanced the robot the more human its appearance….

  3. animekritik says:

    in the case of Japan, robotics is being invested in heavily, because of the dropping birth rate. Apparently the Japanese are so leery of importing labor from other countries that they would rather create a robotic workforce. So the robots being built can say “sumimasen” and bow properly and stuff… in some sense or another it’s not just a case of humans vs robots, but Japanese vs non-Japanese, and a well-built robot might earn a place in the former category to the exclusion of the latter!

    • Cuchlann says:

      Now that’s an interesting idea. I hadn’t heard it before, but it makes sense. I have heard that, in its current insular state, the Japanese economy (née workforce) would collapse, because of said birthrate. I guess sweet SF robots would be a solution outside the box… O_o

    • ghostlightning says:

      Japan used to be a big importer of labor from the Philippines, mostly entertainers. These were at times pejoritavely called ‘Japayuki’ by fellow Filipinos. Japan did put a stop to this a decade ago, sending an entire generation of entertainers and professional (if underground) sex workers out of business.

      I had the most interesting experience of having a veteran Japayuki as a classmate in my post-graduate 20th Century Philippine Literature Class. He was a gay transvestite, a trap before the term was coined, and was such fun to be around. He regaled us with stories of catching panty thieves and offering the burglars his male underwear too.

      I mention this as anecdotal evidence to the drying up of the expatriate labor market in Japan. I’ve ridden with many taxi drivers who were former odd-job holders from there, and even a former yakuza handyman.

      • animekritik says:

        6-7 years ago you could still find filipino pubs in Tokyo, but they were indeed rare, and they wouldn’t allow non-Japanese to enter (ehem, or so my friend told me). South American entertainers (Colombians specially) seemed to be growing in numbers, which is nice for Japanese trying to practice their Spanish.

  4. I’d also like to raise the interesting dichotomy posed by Gaogaigar Final wherein Gai who has become mostly mechanical is seen to possess more compassion and understanding of the human plight as well as a heart of justice then Renais who while still mostly human is withdrawn, cold and distant from others. It’s as if to say that the degree to which one is physically human doesn’t necessarily preclude the traits we recognize as human.

    • ghostlightning says:

      Well, Guy is set up to be a hero’s hero. He HAS to be human (display the very best of human virtues) or otherwise courage, the primary value in the show, is meaningless.

      Also, Eviluder Guy is even beyond human an machine – a badguy-fighting human ideal. And really, that is our ideal: enhanced humanity.

      • ……Then what of Renais?

        • ghostlightning says:

          Well, if lack of compassion or warmth is directly proportional to mechanization, there would be too much inconsistency accross anime. Machine-like villainy exists in very much flesh and blood characters.

          Also Renais’ humanity is inevitable! This is a big part IMO of her romance arc with J. She eventually remembered love, that is to be a warm, compassionate, woman hero.

    • vendredi says:

      This brought to mind several other examples; Battle Angel Alita(otherwise known as GUNNM, if you’re a purist) brings up several similar situations with cyborgs having human brains and mechanical bodies, as well as other characters that have perfectly average human bodies but have exchanged human brains for computerized bio-chips imprinted with their memory.

  5. vendredi says:

    Eve no Jikan is definitely the textbook example for this sort of thing. Other things that come to mind include Ergo Proxy, the animated adaptation of Metropolis – actually, a lot of Tezuka’s work probably applies. There is a story arc in his Phoenix manga that features a character who suffers from a metal disorder wherein he sees all organic life as monstrous and mechanical constructions as beautiful, which leads to some interesting discussions.

    I think one reason for fear of more humanoid robots is, as you note, the lack of predictability, hence the laws of robotics. The thought processes are completely alien to us, but unlike say, a dog, it is an intelligence comparable, or perhaps even superior to our own.

    The irony may very well be though, that if we ever build a robot realistic enough to pass a Turing test, then perhaps the robots thought processes will be fairly close to human anyway.

    • ghostlightning says:

      Why would you say lack of predictability? Programs are supposed to be predictable, unless the AI is given absolute free will (well, as free as any human is). The AI would just be more rational.

      The key issue here is when an AI starts valuing its existence no less than, or even greater than others. Any discussion of robot rights, as Tezuka’s works seem to entertain, raises this issue: are we talking about the rights of essentially a serf-class of citizens?

      • vendredi says:

        Yea, there certainly is some moral stickiness in the way robot rights might be realized – after all, “separate but equal” has historically proved a rather unsatisfactory position.

        To clarify my earlier point though, perhaps predictability is the wrong word; “inhumaneness” might be more apt. Essentially when we’re confronted with other people we implicitly sort of understand that people at the very least think similarly – they have a certain pattern of thought processes and we are able to put ourselves in their shoes.
        With a truly intelligent, self-directed AI we face a truly alien intelligence, something perhaps equal or greater than ourselves that we might never be able to fully understand. Of course, if in the end the robot acts according to human characteristics, patterns, and mannerisms, then maybe this will not be as big a problem.

        • ghostlightning says:


          I’ve also been thinking about procreation. Humans do it in various levels of planning or lack thereof. But the manufacture of robots and AI must be planned to a high degree, especially if these are to have rights. Atom was created with a frontier spirit, with wild experimentation. But outside of pure discovery, what the fuck are we doing?

  6. schneider says:

    I’m sure that Evoluder Guy is more like a Superman than a mechanical man. Cyborg Guy is the real nuts and bolts dude. But no matter.

    Also, I find the lack of Dorothy Waynewright in this post sad. Watch The Big O, please!

    • ghostlightning says:

      I tried it, dropped it. May try it again sometime in the future, maybe. I’m big on second chances and rewatches anyway. In the mean time I still have a whole damn lot of Gundam to watch.

  7. Wow! amazing post! I loved your blog! do you want to do link exchange? I added you on Technorati as well (at least I think I did, have forgotten how to add :-S).

    • ghostlightning says:

      Sorry to seem rude, but the composition of your message reads like a lot of the spam I get. Thanks for the compliments anyway. I’ll consider the link exchange again soon.

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