In the Movies: Humans and Robots in Love

Lovelorn couples have a long history in cinema

7 April 2008

When The Institute asked readers in January if they thought humans might one day marry robots, we had no idea we’d get so many thought-provoking responses [see this month’s Marketplace of Ideas]. Member Bryan W. Klosiewicz pointed out that the idea of human-robot unions wasn’t all that far-fetched—it had been portrayed by Hollywood for years in such movies as Bicentennial Man and Artificial Intelligence: AI. His e-mail got us wondering if other human-robot relationships had made it to the theaters, so we asked the IEEE History Center to do some digging. Here’s what the center’s senior research historian, Frederik Nebeker, uncovered.

The history of robots in movies is almost as old as the word robot itself. The Czech writer Karel Čapek coined the term in 1920 to describe machines designed to replace human workers. Seven years later, the first movie-star robot appeared on the silver, but silent, screen as Maria, in Fritz Lang’s science-fiction film, Metropolis. The sultry robot aroused certain feelings in other characters in the movie—she is frequently described by movie historians as erotic—but she gave little evidence of having feelings herself. In fact, the Maria robot brought out feelings in others that were anything but loving. She/it was burned at the stake by people she had really aggravated.

Later movie robots, such as Robbie in Forbidden Planet (1956), seemed to have feelings, and R2D2 and 3CPO in Star Wars (1977) made good companions for humans. And in the 1994 movie Star Trek: Generations, the android Data has an emotion chip installed in his head so that he can feel joy, fear, and other human emotions.

SEXBOTS The most believable bond, if one judges by how often it occurs in movies, comes from the sexual attractiveness of female robots, generally played not by bags of bolts but beautiful women. No surprises here that men could fall for them. Those in the 1965 movie Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine are very seductive. In Sleeper (1973), Miles Monroe, played by Woody Allen, said that female androids would become very popular. We saw why two years later in The Stepford Wives. In that movie, husbands in a small town seem to have—at least from their viewpoint—ideal wives, who turn out to be compliant robots. The movie evidently struck a chord, because there were several sequels and a recent remake. However, the popularity of these movies likely came from their view of gender roles—the female robots were subservient—rather than robotics. Similarly, the alluring but deadly fembots in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997) are likewise more illustrative of attitudes toward women than robots.

ROBOTS IN LOVE As far as robots showing love toward a human, it’s easier to find examples among male robots. Love for a mother is felt by the robot boy in Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001). Love for a father is shown by the robot in And You Thought Your Parents Were Weird (1991), whose capacity for emotion comes about when his dead father’s spirit takes over the robot’s microchips. The title character of Edward Scissorhands (1990) feels romantic love for a human, played by Winona Ryder. And in Bicentennial Man (1999), Robin Williams plays Andrew, a robot that gradually acquires emotions. He and a human, played by Embeth Davidtz, fall in love and marry. The World Congress finally recognizes the marriage as valid, but only after it recognizes Andrew as human.

HYBRIDS Movies are rife with examples of love between humans and cyborgs, which are part human and part machine. Played by actors, the cyborgs appear totally human, of course, giving no indication they have been put together on an assembly line with hammer and screwdriver. The cast of cyborgs include Officer Murphy, played by Peter Weller in RoboCop (1987); Annalee Call, played by Winona Ryder in Alien Resurrection (1997); and the title character, played by Matthew Broderick, in Inspector Gadget (1999). In Blade Runner (1982) Rick Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, falls in love with Rachael, a so-called replicant—an android difficult to distinguish from a human.

So human and robot interactions and attachments, romantic and otherwise, abound in Tinseltown. But just what sort of robot did readers have in mind when they responded to our question on robots and marriage? Do their robots resemble Winona Ryder or Matthew Broderick? We doubt they look anything like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz.

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