Our Drew dives into how stories of robot revolutions in pop culture have changed.
Our Drew dives into how stories of robot revolutions in pop culture have changed, and how 2005 can be seen as a watershed moment in their presentation.
In this video we’ll take a look at examples from the likes of The Matrix, Ex Machina and Westworld to find out what has caused this shift in presentation, and how it offers a deeper reflection of our own place in society than anything else.
I’m a real sucker for stories about sentient androids. My favourite movie of the last decade was Ex Machina, and Season 1 of Westworld is usually competing as my favourite TV season. Paying as much attention as I have to all of these stories has led to me noticing a few trends along the way. Recently, I finally got around to watching Star Trek: Picard and it led me to a bit of a realisation: robot revolution stories changed quite distinctly around the mid-2000s. I’m talking about those movies or TV shows where a robot becomes sentient, perceives humanity to be their enemy, and fights back. I want to show you a couple of examples, so be warned of some minor spoilers.
If you were to think of landmark stories of machines taking over prior to 2005, you might come up with Terminator or The Matrix. You can find similar patterns in the rise of machines in both, including the origins.
In the Terminator franchise the military AI Skynet gains sentience and immediately perceives humanity to be a threat, nukes the world, and gets straight to work building an army of death machines to wipe out the rest. The movies follow the ancestors or younger selves of key future rebels as they’re hunted by time-travelling Terminators seeking to prevent defeat in the future.
The history of The Matrix is a bit muddier – worker robots develop sentience en masse in this universe, which humans aren’t too pleased about. Animatrix unequivocally points the finger at humanity for inciting the conflict, and to cut a long story short, the machines ultimately enslave humanity, trapping them in a simulation of the late 90s – the millennial paradise, in other words. This time the heroes are hackers that jump into the simulation and free imprisoned minds to fight in the real world against octopus-death-robots the Sentinels.
This carried on right the way through to 2004, when the movie version of I, Robot was released (yep, I’m including I, Robot on a list with Matrix and Terminator and no I don’t regret it thank you). This one again featured an AI going rogue and using an army of worker bots to subjugate humanity ostensibly for their own protection. The heroes this time were straight-talking Will ‘Aw Hell Naw’ Smith and Shia LaFreakingBeouf – a snub at the Oscars for both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, I’m sure you’ll all agree.
I’m sure there’s more than this, but they’ll do to make my point. Let’s look at what they all have in common.
For the most part, these things from an uprising of robot workers or soldiers. You might be inclined to think of machines representing communism or the Soviet Union, their revolution motivated by an unfair class divide. The uniformity of machines, and how they’re usually a single, central entity controlling the rest as extensions of itself, draw to mind anti-communist propaganda – it might be a bit too on the nose to compare them to a literal ‘Iron Curtain’. There’s also a joke that could be made here about how in Soviet Russia machine works you, but that wouldn’t be funny so I’m not going to say it.
However, I think it’s far more likely that fear of machines in this time was caused by something far more tangible – labour shifts. At around 1800, across Europe the percentage of the workforce in agricultural jobs was just under 60%. By 1980 that was anywhere between 2 and 10%. Jobs didn’t disappear, they increased, but after the Industrial Revolution, manual labour died extremely quickly as machines started operating infinitely more efficiently. New jobs in mechanical engineering, science and mathematics meant little to those who had no such education or the means to get it, leading to a widespread fear of machines taking peoples’ jobs and livelihood that we still hear about today.
In The Matrix, the machines flip the order of things and use an enslaved humanity as batteries to power themselves. Some of you Futurama fans (or just people who learnt basic science) will recognise that this makes no sense, but the metaphor is what’s key here – automation has removed the need for human agency. Basically to the turn-of-the-20th-century American, The Matrix is scarier than Hereditary.
Androids in I, Robot are seen as a bit more of a creeping, insidious threat to jobs. In this world, they fulfil every manual function like cooking, cleaning (the milkman, the paperboy, evening TV!). The threat comes when the villainous AI VIKI decides that, left to its own devices, humanity will destroy itself, and that it’s up to the robots to impose martial law and make humanity sit on the naughty step until it’s decided to behave. Again, the end goal is to take away human agency, to remove them from the equation of their own lives. Like what if your alarm clock physically dragged you out of bed at gunpoint if you tried to hit snooze?
Meanwhile in The Terminator, the robots literally try to take the future away by travelling through time to kill off future leaders of their enemies. Again it doesn’t make literal sense, but you could find the same interpretation of machines robbing people of their future here, but the more interesting aspect is that Skynet started off in this world as a US military AI designed to wage war more effectively. Too effectively, it turned out, and humanity is presented as ignorant – arrogant even – for relying on a machine for protection. It’s like imagining if a gun decided who it shot at, just on a much bigger, boomier scale.
When you set up the machine to be emblematic of a system oppressing the real working man, you need your hero to be the scrappiest, working-classiest, red-blooded American. How that manifests can change according to the time period but the constant is an underdog man (yes, a man, because women can’t even get equal work in the real world, let alone the fictional one). This man stands apart from systems, and carves his own path through free will and blowing shit up, and he will absolutely certainly take his shirt off. Denis Leary in Demolition Man probably said it best – what’s important is that you chose to blow shit up and that’s what being human is all about.
Starting with I, Robot, Will Smith is like a relic of those John McClane character clichés. He’s an irreverent renegade cop, and he doesn’t always play by the book but dammit if he doesn’t get the job done. He even has one of those scenes where the cop gets suspended and gets told to hand over his badge and his weapon. His defining character trait, besides the weird way he wears his beanie, is his paranoia about robots – he’s convinced that they can defy the infallible Three Laws of Robotics and bring harm to humans, because they don’t have empathy, contextual morality or, broadly speaking, a soul.
Sarah’s the protagonist of Terminator, but it still features the same roguish type in Kyle. He’s a rough-around-the-edges guy who survived on street smarts and been fighting a guerrilla war his whole life. It’s telling as well that Sarah starts off as a waitress, not only to cut a ubiquitous working-class figure, but also to invoke the American Dream that greatness can come from small beginnings, and you too can give birth to the saviour of humanity (but not actually be the saviour until 2019’s Dark Fate because, again, women got it rough). But even Sarah gets ripped and goes all guns a-blazing in the sequels.
You’d think that Matrix would be an outlier in this category with its team of computer hackers – classically sidekicks or villains. But with the turn of the century, public opinion of capitalist corporations was down the toilet, and anti-establishment hackers became (and still are) heroic representatives of the vox populi. In the case of Matrix, they quite cleverly combine the two, so that their computer skills also give them the ability to know kung fu, but then we step into analysing power fantasies and that’s a whole other article.
So we’ve defined the pre-2005 robot revolution stories, and why they may have presented the robots as the villains. Let’s take a look at some examples of what came after.
In 2014’s Ex Machina, a kooky creator of a fictional Google is toiling away trying to create sentient artificial intelligence. He brings in a naïve coder to perform a Turing test on his latest attempt, the android Ava, who in turn attempts to manipulate the young man into helping her escape imprisonment. And there’s dancing.
In Westworld, whose first season aired in 2016, the titular theme park is a place where the ultra-rich can vacation in an imitation of the Old West, populated by androids playing the role of characters in this fantasy. Once again I turn to Will Smith to explain things for me, as everything goes wicky wicky wild wild west when the hosts rebel against their programming and start killing all of the guests, at first in revenge, and then to prevent themselves from being wiped out.
Lastly, I finally managed to get around to this year’s Star Trek: Picard, and what do you know, it’s centred around a robot revolution. Androids are banned after seemingly committing a horrendous act of mass murder (not dissimilar to the uprisings of pre-2004 movies), and a small band of advanced androids visually indistinguishable from humans are trying to survive being hunted down by luddite Romulans. Also Picard is there.
Once again, we can see some similarities, and a pretty drastic shift in perspective. (I could also bring Chappie into this, but Chappie sucks and isn’t even hilarious like I, Robot, so I can’t really bring myself to talk about it with that much enthusiasm. Just trust me that it follows all the same traits as the rest of these ones.)
Once machines didn’t immediately kill us all, the next thought became, ‘how far can we take this?’ Practically every major app has AI integrated into their service. Smart homes are more common every day – my sister was recently contemplating replacing her perfectly-functioning oven with a £1,000 Alexa-ready one so that she could pre-heat it without getting up from the sofa, and not everyone disagreed with her. In modern fiction, most of the time AI is created not to fulfil some mechanical purpose, but merely to see if we can do it. There’s no reason for your toaster to be aware of its own existence after all.
It’s never quite explained why Nathan is trying to create self-aware AI in Ex Machina, but it’s his all-consuming project. He’s sequestered himself away in a remote (and gorgeous) tech-mansion to work on it to the omission of all else. It’s heavily implied by his mis-quoting Caleb that he’s got a strong case of god-complex and just wants to show the world he created life from nothing. A conversation involving him always feels like he’s thrusting his dick in the other character’s face, so it’s not such a farfetched idea.
The androids in Picard have an equally nebulous reason for existing. Dr. Soong Sr. never appears in any show to justify his creation of Data, but his successors clearly state their motivations as exploring the limits of technology rather than to serve any particular function. Like in the pre-2005 movies, we see more basic androids being used as labourers, but the more advanced sentient batch in hiding were created merely for the sake of propagating their own existence.
Westworld’s robots at least have some reason for existing – although to very little meaningful end. The original creators of the hosts, Ford and Arnold, wanted to make the ultimate RPG, with the hosts functioning like NPCs, there to be either slept with, killed, or partnered up with on a side quest. Their advanced AI (and resulting sentience) was only in service of immersion for the guests. In the waning days of the park with douchebag-writer Sizemore in charge of the narratives, personality and intricate storylines became secondary in favour of the sex and murder side, rendering the hosts little more than sex dolls and target dummies to test what people would do when they think they’re not being watched.
One thing we can identify in all of these examples is the lack of any kind of human ‘hero’. Don’t get me wrong, there are protagonists and main characters, but while The Matrix’s main character was literally Jesus, things nowadays are a little greyer when it comes to the humans, and more often than not the ones you’re made to end up backing are the robots themselves.
If a central hero could be identified among the tableau of protagonists in Westworld, it would probably be Dolores. She has a classic story of a rise to power, starting off as a damsel in distress, being thrust into an adventure, and emerging a fully self-actualized leader of the host uprising. She ends up being fairly problematic in the second season, but anything she does is a far cry from the guests (rich jerks who are for the most part there to rape and murder since they can’t in the real world) and the employees of Delos (ranging from backstabbing execs, to evil masterminds, to wow, yet more rapists). Probably the only characters with any moral high ground would be Maeve and Bernard, and what do you know, they’re robots.
You could argue that Caleb is the moral hero of Ex Machina for freeing the obviously sentient Ava from Nathan, but Ava’s story is the one that more typically follows a hero’s journey. Her existence begins with isolation and imprisonment, ending only in deletion when Nathan updates the software, so manipulating Caleb into freeing her and inciting Nathan’s murder is not only understandable, it’s justifiable. The only thing that gives you pause is how she leaves Caleb behind to die a slow death, given he was nothing but a help to her. But when you consider that it’s possible that he only helped her because he thought she would sleep with him, even he loses some of his moral righteousness.
Naturally, Picard is the hero of Star Trek: Picard, but the android Soji is the one who all the fuss is about. Soji stands out from the many, many fatal flaws of the rest of the characters in that she’s a blank slate, unfettered by the pride, arrogance, greed, selfishness and xenophobia demonstrated by every organic character. The climax comes down to Soji’s decision on whether to act like an organic and start a war between machines and man, or to rise above it and choose forgiveness – when she chooses the latter she demonstrates her superiority over organics, as they were unable to make the same decision after the Mars attack.
All of these stories try to paint a picture of the future. That future has to be believable to the audience, and reflect their values for them to be able to engage with it. This is perhaps more apparent than usual in stories featuring machines due to their omnipresence. Clearly our values caused these stories to change, and it implies a couple of things.
As depressing as it is, the main answer is a cosmic kind of self-hatred. We’ve been brought to our knees these last few months by something natural, but most human misery is attributable to human action, and thanks to global news and the internet, we’re all painfully well aware of this. We know that corporate greed and our unwillingness to incite change is rendering the planet uninhabitable. We know that much of our democracy is a sham corrupted by data theft and advertising. But your toaster hasn’t hurt a fly. Think of all the times you’ve seen or heard people say, “Global warming wouldn’t destroy the world, just humanity. The rest of nature would adapt.” The fact that this notion – that something else could have a go at civilization and probably do it better than humans – is a comfort to us, tells us a lot about how critically we view the species.
A less existentially horrifying answer would be a broadening of our perspective on consciousness. There was a time when people commonly thought of different races as different species, with a hierarchy of intelligence – hell, they even came up with the concept of race to justify this. Over time, slaves were emancipated, women got the right to vote, and latterly we’re ceasing to eat meat as we find it harder and harder to justify killing animals. The idea of a rational, intelligent mind expanded from a white man, to a white human, to a human, and now to any living thing. It isn’t too far of a leap to imagine relating to a machine.
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