Prior to October of 2003, if someone said the word android they were likely talking about a humanoid robot featured in a movie or television show. It is only recently that the term has become synonymous with the operating system now owned by Google, which itself was not around until 1997. Now that Android has become famous as an operating system it seems appropriate to revisit the concept of robots built to resemble human beings in popular culture before Google came into being.
According to screenwriter Jon Spaihts the android represented in contemporary science fiction is symbolic of the problems inherent in “summoning” a being greater than oneself for one purpose or another. Often that which is summoned cannot be fully controlled by the summoner and the consequences inherent in that imbalance are usually overwhelming. This refers back to supernatural stories of the distant past where demons and spirits are called forth to aid characters but often bring disastrous results. Tying this Pandora’s Box concept to technology in the form of an android helps to show the complicated relationship between humankind and technology, in which technological advances are often feared as much as they are valued.
There are several prominent examples of humanoid robots in popular culture from the second half of the 20th century. One of the most memorable is that of the Terminator, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, in the movie of the same name released in 1984. This android, sent back in time by a nearly all-powerful computer network (Skynet) to prevent a human uprising, is the product of technology created by humans that grows beyond the control of the humans who created it. The Terminator movie franchise generated several additional versions of this android in sequels and culminated in the T-RIP, played by Sam Worthington, wherein the human self and robot self struggle for dominance within the same body. Before The Terminator, the movies Westworld (1973) and Futureworld (1976) brought robots disguised as humans into a theme park environment to allow visitors to enjoy fantasy adventures in realistic environments, but when something went haywire with the technology the robots became killers.
Several of the androids presented in popular culture before Google did not fall into Spaihts view of the Pandora’s Box theme, however. Other versions of the theme created situations where the concept of humanity itself could be analyzed in comparison to the technological copies created, and often these depictions created new questions about the meaning of humanity. The character of Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation television series and subsequent movies (1987-2002) was an android character devoted to better understanding humanity. The character of Data allowed writers to explore questions like whether humor, art and emotions were distinctly human or if they could be taught to robots. In 2001, after Google was created but before the Android operating system, Stephen Spielberg released Artificial Intelligence: A.I. In this epic movie, a robot toy, David, is thrown away and goes on a journey reminiscent of Pinocchio, where he seeks to escape the limits of his robot nature and become a human boy.
Whether someone will create a new name for lifelike robots to prevent confusion is yet to be seen. Another thought is that the operating system itself could possibly provide new ways for popular culture to explore themes of humanity and technology, and therefore reclaim the original definition. Regardless, contemporary culture will likely continue to invest in the android, or robot-man, theme as a science fiction tool to explore questions of humanity just like it did before Google turned it into a brand name.
By David Morris