Hollywood loves wickedly lethal killer robots on the loose. The common fear of “killer robots” is grounded in what we learned from the movies, not in the science behind autonomous weapons. Here, to make the case, are seven of the more bodacious boogieman ‘bots of the Silver Screen.
7. The Golem (1915)
This silent film was hailed as the first science-fiction movie ever. (It predates Sharknado III by a full century!) Only fragments of the film still exist. Plot summary: antique dealer finds mythical ancient Golem and brings it back to life; Golem falls in love with dealer’s wife; Golem goes postal. Not much science in this fiction. Heck, the dude is made of clay.
6. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Robots became a staple of Hollywood science fiction. Most were mindless drones like the trash-can robots that battle “Crash” Corrigan in Undersea Kingdom (1936). But this classic sci-fi film offers a different take. Here, the eight-foot tall Gort has a mind of his own. He’s aboard an alien spacecraft that lands next to the Washington Monument. When an earthling speaks those mysterious words “Klaatu barada nikto,” Gort takes off on a rampage to recover the spaceship’s pilot. The filmmakers were mostly interested in presenting pacifist metaphors that chide Cold War hysteria. Their message: The only way to handle violence is to have no violence. Sure, get right on that. Warning: A 2008 remake of this movie is brain-numbingly terrible. Watch it at your own peril.
5. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
“I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.” Wow, that’s not what Dave wants to hear. Dave is floating through space and HAL, the robot brain that is piloting the ship bound for Jupiter, won’t let Dave back in. In this film that is hailed as one of the greatest science-fiction films ever, the betrayal by a computer run amok struck a chord with audiences. In the heyday of the hippie, at the height of the Vietnam War protest movement, the motto was trust no one over 30—and that goes for our robots, too. Technology is the enemy.
4. Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)
Before the Terminator had “Skynet,” there was Colossus—a super-computer running all U.S. nuclear defenses. In this anti-tech movie, the humans turn on Colossus. The big brain then speed-dates the Soviet computer system, and they team up to rule over mankind for its own good. It’s a not-so-benevolent dictatorship. If humans don’t cooperate, the computer just threatens them with nuclear holocaust. What could go wrong? The problem with the science here is that it’s strictly aspirational. Forty-five years after this film’s release, we still aren’t close to building true artificial intelligence.
3. Westworld (1973)
Think Disneyworld, only filled with robots. They look like humans, and you can do whatever you want to ‘em… and they don’t mind. Who wouldn’t want a pass to that park? It’s all fun and games until the protocol that keeps the robots from harming guests goes haywire. Then, most everybody dies. Michael Crichton wrote the screenplay. He made a career out of writing about the moral implications of science gone wild. But his science is usually just short of being solid. In Jurassic Park (1993) scientists extract DNA from fossils to make their own dinosaurs (just ask the world’s expert on the subject, Jack Horner). And Crichton’s killer robots were just as fantastical.
2. Hardware (1990)
This vastly under-appreciated movie about a raging robot in a post-apocalyptic world is so worth watching. Think the Golem with wires. The film is particularly noteworthy for the evil, bloodthirsty, peeping-Tom killer robot. Love the style and gore—but, like the Golem, there is not much science here either.
1. i, Robot (2004)
Not the best killer-robot movie ever. But in 2035, where robots do pretty much everything, a detective investigates the unimaginable: the murder of a human by an android. In the process, he discovers a robot revolution. The future of humanity winds up in the hands of Will Smith (just as it did in the 2007 film I Am Legend). The science is pretty non-existent, but the film is notable for popularizing writer Isaac Asimov’s law of robotics: “a robot may not harm humanity, or by inaction allow humanity to come to harm.” Humans can’t make decisions with that kind of efficiency, and we sure can’t make robots with that capability. It’s Asimov’s laws that are dumb—not the idea of building safeguards to keep killer robots in line.
Hollywood’s killer robots are pure fantasy. Autonomous weapons are real. But the two should not be confused. Denouncing autonomous weapons, as Human Rights Watch does, is premature.
Soon the UN will debate whether or not to ban the ‘bots. But outlawing technology before it’s even built is a dumb idea. The question is: Will Turtle Bay be swayed by Hollywood horror plots or by the science?