Computer Kills Man

The Great Battle between men and machines in books and films

Slide 1: Machines - Friend or Foe

Shane Acker’s post-apocalyptic fantasy 9 is set in a future in which humans no longer exist. Machines created to help mankind have been hijacked by the military to kill them instead. Unfortunately once machines start to kill they couldn’t stop themselves. And so now all that exists besides the 9 stitch punk creatures are machines with their buttons eternally switched to the “kill” position. This dystopic vision of the future has been a reoccurring dream for writers, artists and filmmakers for centuries. Here is a brief history of our future annihilation.

Slide 2: Testing One's Metal

Before there could be apocalyptic battles between man and machine in 20th century fiction and film, there needed to be intelligent, self-motivated machines. Arguably the first such robot dates back to the ancient Greeks when Talos, a man of Bronze forged by Hephaestus (the god of technology and blacksmiths), guarded the isle of Crete.  The creature was a gift from Zeus to Crete’s queen Europa. But Talos was not alone. Other cultures have also imagined a creature of inert material animated to life, often with tragic consequences. Jewish folklore tells of the Golem, a creature made of dirt.  In 1816, German writer E.T.A. Hoffman published his short story “The Sandman,” in which the hero falls in love with a mechanical doll named Olimpia. And in Italy, Carlo Collodi’s 1883 novella The Adventures of Pinocchio imagines a puppeteer who makes a wooden puppet come to life.

Slide 3: God as Man

John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, first published in 1667, is clearly not a thriller about robots taking over the universe. But its central drama between God and Satan, a creator and his created, draws the battle lines that will later be occupied by Man and robots. In Milton’s grand work, Satan rebels against his God, claiming that he and his fellow archangels are self-created and therefore owe no allegiance to their maker. As he says:

“…Who saw
When this creation was? Rememberst thou
Thy making, while the Maker gave thee being?
We know no time when we were not as now;
Know none before us, self-begot, self-raised…”

Such is the logic that will be echoed in the future by the Cylons of Battlestar Galactica.

Slide 4: Man as God

By the 19th century, writers had turned Milton’s theological drama upside down, turning man into a god, making him now deal with the disobedience of his own creations. No doubt the most famous fable about the dire consequences of man acting like God is Mary Shelley’s 1831 novel Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus.  Indeed Shelley’s choice of “Victor” for Frankenstein first name has been suggested by many scholars to be a reference to Milton’s Paradise Lost, in which God is often referred to as “the Victor.” In any case, Frankenstein must destroy his creation, for fear of the violence it will wreak upon mankind.

Slide 5: The Machine Takes Over

The English novelist E. M. Forster (Passage to India, Maurice) would seem an unlikely writer to kick off the man vs. machine genre. But 1909 story “The Machine Stops” imagined a world in which machines had taken over the lives of men. The story is set sometime in the future when the human race has taken shelter underground. A matrix of machines connects individuals, as well as providing food, light and other physical needs. The calamity that comes with the convenience provided by the machines is realized all too late. When the Machine stops, mankind dies. Written as retort to H. G. Wells’ fantasies of a utopian future, “The Machine Stops” has been collected in many short story anthologies and was turned into a BBC television film in 1966. In recent years, some critics have suggested the story is really an allegory of British Imperialism, a political machine which in serving the English public has made them too dependent on their colonies. 

Slide 6: The Robot is Born

The first outright rebellion of robots occurs in the same work that the originated the word. Czech dramatist Karel Čapek’s 1921 fantasy play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) contained the first use of the word “robot.” The play imagines a future when mankind has created robots to serve them, only at a certain point the robots rebel, killing off all humans but one. While the author meant the robots as a simple allegorical device, audiences took to the idea of intelligent machinery and the threat it might pose. The word “robot” was adopted into popular parlance in just a matter of years.

Slide 7: The Robot Disobeys

Even though Sir Arthur Clarke debunked the idea that his giant computer HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey was code for computer giant IBM––HAL is IMB moved one letter back––the conjoining of corporations and computers in the public imagination had already taken root. Indeed both are fully functional non-human entities, and both offer the danger that at some point they will turn to protect themselves at the expense of human beings.  When HAL turns on his human masters, he demonstrates a level of intelligence usually denied machines (but not corporations)—the intelligence of deception and cunning. Who can forget the curdling sweet reassurance of a machine telling Dave (Keir Dullea), “Look, Dave, I can see you're really upset about this,” after he has massacred nearly everyone on the ship. With one quick adjustment, machines went from servants to sociopaths.

Slide 8: New Rules for Robots

HAL’s mutiny is all the more chilling since his homicidal rage flew in the face of robot morality, as laid down by Isaac Asimov in his 1950 short story collection I, Robot. In his “Three Laws of Robotics,” Asimov explains that machines “may not injure a human being” and “must obey any orders given to it by human beings.” The third law states, “A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.”  But in trying to tame robots, as Daniel Dinello points out in Technophobia!: Science Fiction Visions Of Posthuman Technology, Asimov has actually paved the way to machines taking over the world: “The inevitable logic of robotic benevolence leads robots to assume complete control of humanity.” The created eventually become the parents to their unreliable and all too human creators.

Slide 9: The Robots as Mirror

The sixties and seventies saw a range of robot horror stories, but inevitably in each one, it was not the robot but his creator who was to blame for the violence and mayhem. One of the most memorable was Michael Crichton’s campy 1973 Westworld (and its 1976 follow-up Futureworld). Inspired by the animatronic creatures of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride at Disneyland, Crichton made his park a place of programmed fights between man and his mechanical rival. (Interestingly, 30 years later, Jerry Bruckheimer found a way to turn the ride into a movie itself.)  Following the logic of Disneyland, the Delos Corporation has created a three-part adult amusement park (Westworld, MedievalWorld and RomanWorld) in which middle-age affluent corporate types live out their anarchical fantasies among robots (that are indistinguishable from humans). Killing, sex, even rape, are socially sanctioned fun in these fantasy worlds.  So when the robots began to malfunction and kill, they are doing nothing more than mimic the human behavior they have been programmed to perform.

Slide 10: Replacement Parts

Bryan Forbes 1975 film The Stepford Wives (based on Ira Levin’s novel of the same name) turned the battle of the sexes into a war between humans and machines. The conceit, that men unhappy with the feminist revolution could trade their uppity wives for docile robots, was intended as social satire––although quite a few feminists read it as just another a male fantasy masquerading as political commentary. The concept got twisted and turned around in its many sequels (1980’s Revenge of the Stepford Wives, 1987’s The Stepford Children, and 1999’s Stepford Husbands) that “Stepford” has turned into a synonym for robotic.

Slide 11: Robots Fall in Love

Through the 80s and 90s, the robots turning human inevitably meant them turning on their creator by seducing their wives. Donald Cammell’s Demon Seed imagines a machine who’ll stoop to rape in order to conquer mankind. The premise of a supercomputer seeking to escape the limitations of its circuitry by mating with its creator wife (Julie Christie) is at one level absurd. But, at the same time, it speaks to merging of biology and computer science that would take over the public imagination in late 20th century.  Aaron Lipstadt’s 1982 cult favorite Android features a female robot that turns violent and jealous of its creator (Klaus Kinski) when his attention turns to real women. And Fred Walton’s Homewrecker imagines a household helper robot who grows so attached to its master that it decides to kill his wife.

Slide 12: Computer Confusion

By the 60s, the question was not whether machines could match human intelligence, but whether they could attain an emotional consciousness. Could they feel? Could they love? And if so, what really separate them from humans? Published in 1969, Philip K. Dick’s short story “The Electric Ant” introduces a character who slowly learns that he is in fact a machine.  Dick had explored the issue more loosely a year before in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The book was later adapted into Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner, a futuristic noir in which Harrison Ford plays Rick Deckard, a hard-boiled hunter of replicants (life-like androids who pass themselves off as human). Decker, who begins the film with no qualms about killing machines, begins to first suspect that replicants might be sentient creatures, and then that he might be a replicant. Steven Spielberg pushed this concept a bit further with his futuristic fable A.I., about an android boy who is imprinted with the capacity to love. In some ways the film is updating of Pinocchio. But unlike the fairy tale, A.I. finds no happy ending. Rather the machine boy capable of love finds he is unable to die.

Slide 13: Machines Outside of Time

James Cameron’s 1984 The Terminator took the man vs. machine gambit to its ultimate conclusion––human extinction. Beginning in the future, the story jumps back to the present as a terminator hunts down the human who’ll give birth to the man who might forestall the extinction of man by machine. The bleak and powerful vision of a machine run future lead not only to two sequels, but also much mimicry and parody. The complicated time travel that organizes The Terminator, as Richard A. Gilmore points out in his essay “Oedipus Techs,” follows the basic logic of all man vs. machine story. For the created to conquer his creator is act of self parenting: “Kyle is the literal father of John Connor, who then becomes Kyle’s spiritual (and possibly literal father).” As with Milton, the son becomes the father.

Slide 14: The Dream Machine

While many works envision the showdown between man and machine on a desolate and scorched battleground, the Wachowski brothers’ 1999 feature The Matrix turned those assumptions inside out, by creating a future in which human beings don’t even know they are been harvested by machines for energy. Instead humans are chemically induced into a dream state, living a life that looks remarkably like our own. The film, chock full of references from Plato to pseudo-Christian spirituality to Alice in Wonderland, pushes to the extreme Socrates’s dictum that the “unexamined life is not worth living.” Although here, examining your life might also make you want to stop living.

Slide 15: Finding the Robot Within

Battlestar Galactica made the war between man and machine into an award-winning television series. While the show began in an early form in 1978 (as a sort of Star Trek rival), but it didn’t really find its voice till it was re-imagined in 2004. After the Cylons – a robot race that has mutinied against humans – launch a nuclear attack that nearly wipes out mankind, machine and man find themselves in a cat and mouse game across deep space, as the human race attempts to find one last home. As the battle rages on, a clear distinction between man and machines grows harder and harder to divine.


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