Why Humanoid Robots Are Invading Our Movies and TV
Image: HBO/Medium

Why Humanoid Robots Are Invading Our Movies and TV

Between 'Westworld', 'Humans' and last year's 'Ex Machina', the influx of androids is undeniable. But it's not them we fear—it's something about us.
November 1, 2016, 12:00pm

"Even Camilla had enjoyed masquerades, of the safe sort where the mask may be dropped at that critical moment it presumes itself as reality."

So begins The Recognitions by William Gaddis, the doorstopper novel which arrived—unbidden, unloved—on the doorstep of the mid-twentieth century. Just in time to fizz away, a largely unread hypertext for the 20th century's coming crisis of the real: the postmodern infatuation with questions of authenticity in an age of simulation and replication. Over a decade later, Philip K. Dick would put digit to keytop and power out the short novel which yielded its own replica: Blade Runner, a living memory-film for every sensible weed smoker past or present, pondering the programmable nature of existence.


Entertainment, it seems, can only move forward so quickly. And just as the hunkering outline of the metropolis and the factory loomed large over much nineteenth and twentieth century fiction, so now we're still enjoying an unacknowledged masquerade coordinated across the imagination of two visionary writers. Only today, we can't dispense the tension which accrues when the mask slips to reveal the same face underneath. The clockwork organism which removes its machine makeup, to acknowledge the smiling human skin hid beneath.

If you've been within ocular scanning distance of a billboard or web banner, you'll have seen the coming hordes. The posthumanist replicants, synthetic humanoids, robo-hot-sticks – call them what you will—their facial symmetry is a dead giveaway. These too-perfect creatures are a clear step into the unreal. What we're dealing with here, are very attractive, and made-up, screen actors.

Last year, Humans arrived on Channel 4—catching us unawares with its pseudo-brand marketing for Persona Synthetics, coming on in the breaks between Gogglebox and reminding us that adverts—not just humans—can be effectively aped through intelligent design.

This year saw the launch of Westworld —HBO's demented trawling of 1970s box office nostalgia that, happily, makes for good telly. Both present us with the spectacle of anthropic humanoids who look good enough to desire sexually, and that's a win-win for those of us who'd secretly like to screw a VR headset to our groin, because these ficto-bots are, initially, pliant to command. But alas, they have that nasty ol' sci-fi habit of becoming more autonomous than automaton.

Naturally, this worries the scales of the grand philosophical question of whether it is or isn't okay to bang a sex toy, if your sex toy is—at the same time—questioning you mildly about whether you'd like to re-order the Branston Pickle on your next online shop. (A question which Spike Jonze's admirable but overrated Her definitively failed to raise). Amid all the philosophized quandary, the existential fret, anyone would be forgiven for switching off and picking up a yo-yo.


But thankfully, there's at least one attendant issue here which isn't up for discussion: that the bot fictions are themselves multiplying. And, if you're in the habit of looking past the mundanity of TV executives borrowing one another's ideas, you might want another explanation for such a shiny and machine-smooth coincidence. You might even point toward other factors dormant in the collective unconscious of this —The Information Age. Namely, the cultural anxiety which circulates around the rise of A.I., android slave revolts, and our much mooted enslavement at the self-programming hands of our soon-to-be metal overlords.

And yet, we've lived through that nightmare before; seen it second-hand in the digi-scaremongering of much twentieth century sci-fi. Cyberpunk inspired cinema—The Terminator and The Matrix (to name two obvious examples)—spoke candidly to a latent fear that, as we embraced technocratic civilisation, we would inadvertently turn the controls over entirely. Empowering the digital ghost haunting our ATMs, downloading our pirated music files, and—presumably—turning our kettle off at one hundred celsius.

What's more, this analysis doesn't quite suit the sensibility of these recent shows. Broadly speaking, the likes of Humans and Westworld are cast in the light of more post-humanist sympathies. They show the human creators of an exploited android class to be crass running dogs of turbo-powered capitalism, solely concerned with automaton labour value and unfazed by the quiddities of what we now call Robo-ethics. Read that way, these entertainments seem like another kind of Enlightenment backlash, a further quest to push the human perspective out from the centre of our worldly preoccupations in order to ask (a la John Gray or James Lovelock) whether other sentient organisms are not equal stakeholders on this here Mothership Earth: enfranchised party members scrambling up and down the same snakes and ladders of evolutionary consciousness.

This lends weight to the body of 20th century intellectualism that hoped to disrupt and disturb the homely presuppositions of what we can comfortably say about reality. Hence V.R. and robo-advancement continuing to rip stitches from the still suppurating wound that is post-modernity's tear from the real; its dilemma of simulation and second-order experience fed back through loops and tangling spirals. A dash of strychnine in the hot cocoa of human complacency.

So, another hypothesis might be necessary. One which lets be with the parable of treacherous creation—arguably subject to over-circulation since Mary Shelley (and some would say it's a fine Oedipal jig that dates back to Paradise Lost—or Oedipus Rex, come to think of it). Instead, it seems just as likely that—in the same way Orwell's 1984 had more to do with the dawning Cold War paranoia of 1948, emerging from the waking nightmare of wartime cryptography and control—our present gaze on humanoid robotics is a covert recognition, an acknowledgement of some distinctly sub-optimal vibes sounding out on the synthesized gong processor.


Watching a robot slowly gain consciousness is like a screen memory playing in our heads, masking the thing we're most reticent to admit. It's like counterintelligence for the psyche, showing a reverse image of our true fear: that we're slowly programming ourselves into something far less than the existentially free beings which—you might opine—we've spent millennia getting to know and co-coercing into decency. As a species, we're making headway on a path that will see us Fitbitting our days into a heady data pile, ripe for the crunching. Sleep hygiene apps ensure that even our non-waking moments are categorised and subject to analytic scrutiny, and so-called 'Sentiment Analysis' is being applied to tweets, texts, and office e-mails to try and boil down our unique constellation of thoughts and emotions into a brackish stew of wants and service needs. The plan, of course, outlined seemingly by no-one and everyone, is that we become inwardly more machine-like—utterly dependent on input and command—at the same time as we maximise the potential of our fleshy form.

Today, amid those sufficiently middle class to aspire to such a thing as computerized insulation for the mind, water is insufficient. We need smart water, vitamin water—protein water. Clinical hydration which includes everything left out of the killer sugar water combo which soft drinks manufacturers peddle to the un-ambitiously thirsty. The rise of superfoods is a date with the destiny of super you—a body above what you thought possible from a scarecrow of skittish nerves, white bone and globular meats. Eat avocado and run until you can't breathe; if you make an armour of your body, literally nothing will harm you. And if your brain won't do as told, mindfulness and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy apps are on hand to keep our brains from frag and/or lag. Any kind of malaise can be combatted with the aid of superior mind tech. Just search Spotify for a playlist that reads "Music for When You Feel Alienated By The World Around You". The first track is Heroes by David Bowieå–and you could be one. A hero. Not by actually doing anything to, say, combat the immiserating logic of so-called conscious capitalism. Just by plugging in and going for a run. Why wouldn't you?


One person who knows the power of going for a run is another nocturnal visitor from the lucid scares of recent cinema—a medium no different to television in its lust for the robotic and pseudo-human. Her name is Ava (nineteenth century coder avant la lettre meshed in the lexic web of the reproductive ova), star of Alex Garland's Ex Machina (2015). And boy does she know the value of getting shot when things aren't going to plan. Caged in the typical laboratory art gallery that signifies any forward-thinking billionaire's pad—she's a fembot who knows only too well that last year's iPhone is only so much molten carbon in this year's contemporary dining table.

At a pivotal moment in the film, we see Ava slowly clothe herself in human flesh. She anticipates her escape into the outside world by covering her steel plates and angel hair latticework with borrowed skin. And she does so studiously, gazing into a mirror to ensure her imitation is lifelike. (Although that's a misnomer, we assume, because she's already alive in any operative sense that we can fathom). It's something of a nod to the mirror gazing obsession of make-over TV shows; not a parade of feminine gender norms per se, more a calming reassurance that our android successors will enjoy television as much as we do.

More importantly, it's a charade put on for our sake. An act of charity to the viewer, stuck in the darkened cinema or plugged into an iPad on a busy commuter train. Watching the subtle show of humanity that we find ready-made each morning, in the mirror before we arrive, acted out for all to see. Ava isn't scary because she signals the future—that we-walk-among-you nightmare of indistinguishable robots—she's scary because she wants to be human at a time when we seem destined in the opposite direction.

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