Today in Pop Culture: Can We Trust the Robots?

Published on January 25th, 2016 in: Science and Technology, Science Fiction, Today In Pop Culture |

By Jeffery X Martin


A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

A robot must obey the orders given 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 Laws.

Some readers may recognize the above conditions as Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. They were first published in 1942 and they formed the basis for all of his stories about robots (and there were a lot).

They’re good laws. Read them. They are completely rational rules to live by, even if you’re not an artificial lifeform. In the real world, the scientists who program robots work within the confines of those laws. Sometimes, there are additions and sometimes there is a rewording, for clarity’s sake, but the basic laws are essentially there.

Sometimes, however, things go wrong.

The year was 1979. On this date in pop culture, Robert Williams became the first man to be killed by a robot. It was not a humanoid robot. And it’s not clear that the robot intended to do it. Nonetheless, it happened, and here we are.

Williams had found gainful employment on a Ford assembly line in Michigan. He was working in a storage facility where a giant robot arm was also engaged in the act of sorting parts. The robot arm smacked Williams in the head, slamming him to the floor. He was killed instantly.

A terrible way to make history, to be sure, but certainly one that echoed the way humankind felt about robots at the time.

After all, hadn’t we seen Yul Brynner as a robot gunslinger ruthlessly hunt Richard Benjamin down in Westworld? Didn’t we know what terrible things the HAL-9000 was capable of in 2001: A Space Odyssey? Even a movie as goofy as Robot Monster, with its gorilla-suited creature wearing a diving helmet, taught us that robots were something to be feared.

Williams’s death certainly seemed to bear that out.

Even after his passing, The Terminator came along to make sure that everyone understood that, as far as robots were concerned, the only good human was a dead human.

Then, something shifted our view about our mechanical brethren. There’s no proof of this, but I have a theory that it was Terminator 2: Judgement Day that made us trust robots. We had seen an evil robot from the future do its damnedest to kill a pregnant woman. In the sequel, we saw that same woman allow the same model of cyborg to practically raise her child, viewing it as a father figure. Did it make a bit of sense? Absolutely not, but killer robots had become our heroes.

Now, we have robots that vacuum our carpets and we laugh when they sneak up behind the cat, making it jump. There’s an R2-D2 DVD projector that rolls around the house, showing movies on your walls. Your child can build a robot from a kit they order from Amazon off your computer, which is just another kind of robot.

Are we safe?

Have we ever been really safe?

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