On Robots

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I have a love-hate relationship with robots. I’ve felt this way for as long as I can remember. As an exceptionally precocious child, I was always far too clever for my own good. Family trips to Chuck – E – Cheese would be completely ruined by my 5 year old frightened screams of “that isn’t a mouse, it’s a robot disguised as a mouse!” I can remember attending my friends’ birthday parties, frozen in fear as I watched this giant mechanical mouse sing songs to me from a stage. Sure, they might have plushy, comforting exteriors, but my small child-sized mind couldn’t stop from picturing their hard, electronic skeletons controlling every inhuman movement.

I blame most of my irrational childhood robot-based fears on the terrible animatronics that were overly present in 80s movies. I distinctly remember watching E.T. and being transfixed, not by the plot or the characters, but by the notion that these actors had to interact with a robot covered in rubber and pretend that he was an alien.

I remember being horrified each time any human would touch E.T. “Yes!” I’d think, “Let’s touch the rubber-wearing robot skeleton because his finger lights up! This seems like the best idea ever!” Tears laden with dismay would well in my eyes as I watched the humans live so comfortably next to a walking, talking mess of wires and electricity. “You stupid humans,” I’d mutter to myself, “it’s unnatural to love metal and plastic!” I genuinely think I would have preferred a world in which E.T. was a real alien. Admittedly though, I have a bias. I fully support situations in which a robot is supposed to actually be a robot. In other words, the adorable Star Wars creations, R2D2 and C3PO do not frighten me in the slightest. Ironically, this could be because I know for a fact that neither R2D2 nor C3P0 are real robots. In the movies, humans wearing robot suits play both characters. My heart goes out to both of those actors for the incredible struggle they undoubtedly had to endure. Without question, they lived, for hours a day, inside a suit filled with poky wires and uncomfortable metallic bones. Yet perhaps I could sense their humanity shining through their robotic exteriors and this is what suppressed my innate desire to hate all things robotic. Also, I just really love Star Wars. Yes, my fear of robots is irrational. Thankfully, robots are not yet fully integrated into our society so I do not have to face my fears on a regular basis.There is really only one situation in which I ever have to come face-to-face with my nightmares: Theme parks. Growing up in central Florida, my family had immediate access to all of the magic Disney World had to offer, including Walt’s beloved animatronics. As a child, I decided that these were not, as Walt had intended, at all magical and were instead undeniably terrifying. As a particularly self-aware seven year old, I distinctly remember riding “It’s a Small World” with my family while quietly pondering the rational behind the inclusion of robotics on a water ride. “Why would anyone take a building, fill it with water, fill it with robots, then funnel people through it on tiny track-driven boats and call it entertainment?!” For me, Disney wasn’t the happiest place on earth. “They do know what happens when you mix electricity with water, right?” I’d ask my parents as they forced me to board ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.’ “Yes dear, but this is safe. They wouldn’t let you ride it if it wasn’t safe.” I couldn’t trust these people. Instead of risk certain death, I firmly buried my face in my hands and my hands in my knees, “enjoying” the ride the only way I knew how. But what made our ‘20,000 League’ voyage even worse was that we weren’t simply floating on the electrically spiked water, we were IN it. Completely submerged. So, in the event of an inevitable leak, all of that nasty ass robot water would invade my precious personal space with no obvious means of escape.  I cried silent tears and prayed to a god I hoped existed that he might graciously spare my family from such demise. My parents giggled nervously at my fear, telling the ride attendants,“oh, she’s fine. She’s having fun! Isn’t it adorable?” My dad would have to lead me, hands still covering my face in forced blindness, off the boat once the ride was finally over. “That wasn’t so bad, right? You survived! Look at you!” I may have survived this particular encounter, but that didn’t make me any more willing to trust that Disney’s animatronics weren’t hell-bent on my destruction. I had a similarly startling experience a few years later at Universal Studios, another readily available robot-ridden theme park in Orlando. My friends had coerced me to ride E.T. under the pretense that it was “cute.” As I’ve already made abundantly clear, there is nothing about E.T. that I find “cute.”  They strategically placed me in the front row, on the off chance that a seat in a prime viewing position might somehow enhance my ride experience making it less traumatic. This, regrettably, had the opposite effect. About halfway through the ride, it became apparent that we weren’t alone on our suspended carriage. A small, robotic, E.T. head suddenly rose up in front of me and I nearly lost my mind. THEY TRICKED ME. THE BASTARDS. Only my screams managed to stifle their laughter. Yet, I remember leaving that ride feeling a surprising sense of invincibility; if I could manage to survive a ride on a floating bicycle driven by a robotic rubber alien, there was little else in life I wasn’t capable of achieving. This was also the day I slowly began to realize that you wouldn’t actually die if you touched a robot. My fears were partially relieved. In an effort to understand my loathing for robots and to attempt to assuage my unnecessary robot racism, as I grew older, I began researching robotics with an insipid curiosity. As an adult, I have an intense appreciation for the science behind these creations. I fully understand the amount of innovation involved in creating Disney’s infamous animatronics. As my understanding of robots has increased, my fears have gradually subsided. One particular book can claim most of the credit for removing the veil of animosity that clouded my perspectives on robot-kind. Reading Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” changed my life forever. Mr. Dick proposed a society in which robots (androids) actually had feelings. I felt genuinely conflicted alongside the protagonist Mr. Deckard whose job it was to retire (kill) androids who had acted out against humans. The entire premise of the book revolves around the idea that robotics had advanced to the degree that androids were now capable of acting with emotions that made them nearly indistinguishable from humans. Problems arose when androids, thanks to their newfound emotional capabilities, began to rebel. Mr. Deckard and other “bladerunners” would find these androids and administer empathy tests. These tests would determine, based on their answers to questions that elicited emotional responses, whether or not the prisoner was human or simply an android. Matters got even more complicated when Deckard ends up developing romantic feelings toward one of the androids, Rachael, whom he has been instructed to retire. “Wait just a gosh darn minute,” I wish I could have said to Philip K. Dick, “You’re asking me to believe that robots can have feelings?!” I was extremely conflicted because I genuinely cared for Mr. Deckard’s character and, despite the fact that she was an android, I loved Racheal as well. Upon realizing that Dick’s book had been made into a movie in the 80s (“Bladerunner”) directed by Ridley Scott, I immediately purchased said movie and watched it on repeat for days. My world had been turned upside down. “Bladerunner” made me feel something of which I never thought I’d be capable: empathy for robots. I cried actual tears when (spoiler alert) my favorite android, Roy Batty, died at the end of the movie. I began to see robots and my animatronics theme park nightmares in a new light. These special little creatures were the forefathers to potential beings like my beloved “Bladerunner” androids. A future where humans and robots co-exist is not incredibly far fetched given advances in science and engineering. To this day, “Bladerunner” remains one of my favorite movies and I regularly force all of my friends to watch it with me. With a newfound appreciation for robots, I can go out in the world and admire human/robot interaction with curiosity and respect. That part in “Star Wars” when Luke gets his hand lobbed off by his father and has to use a robotic hand instead? – Creepy no more! Now, I can’t help but think, “good on you, robot hand! Look at you helping that Jedi! What symbiosis! What team work!” That movie “Short Circuit”? – Still kind of annoying, but now surprisingly adorable as well thanks to my freedom from unnecessary judgment of robot-kind. Some robots, however, will always be creepy, no matter how much I appreciate their existence and the scientific ingenuity involved in their creation. Point in case: Furbies. This mid-90s “toy” is one of the most disturbing things ever created. The way it sometimes “woke up” in the middle of the night complaining it was hungry or would occasionally talk in complete gibberish (likely satanic in origin) was more than enough cause for anyone to harbor an aversion to these creatures. Furbies scare me so completely that I’m still afraid that they never really turn off, even after you remove the batteries. I faced my robot – related fears recently on an intimidating large scale. A local community theater was putting on a production of “The Twilight Zone” in which they’d reenact a few of the classic episodes for audiences. This sounded like a fantastic bit of fun, so I decided to audition. I only read for one role. The episode involved a man living imprisoned on an asteroid far from Earth, and received a humanoid robot woman as a present. I read for the role of the robot-woman, Alicia. To my intense surprise, I was cast in the role! My immediate thought upon having to act as Alicia was, “oh my gosh. I’m basically going to be playing Rachael. I’m living Bladerunner. This is the most fantastic thing I’ve ever experienced in my entire life! I can die happy.” Then, I realized the full weight of the character. I had to think like them. I had to think like a robot. Putting far more work into a character than is ever required for unpaid community theater, I began wracking my brain for insight into the mind of my arch-nemesis. I thanked Philip K. Dick and the sci-fi gods for creating “Bladerunner” to provide me with much of the source material for my character development. If there was ever a moment to truly face my fear of robot – kind, it was now. I couldn’t possibly play a robot as an actor if I was afraid of robots. That, in itself, is the most bizarre coincidence my life has experienced to date. Yet, thanks to a wonderful cast, director, and a literal life-time spent preparing for the role, my debut as a robot-woman was an undeniable success. Everyone who came to see the show said my acting was spot on (unless they were lying to me). I had a few people tell me that my movements were “eerily robotic” and “you really freaked me out.” Even my (spoiler alert) sparky, seizure-ridden robot-death at the end of the play was deemed a rousing triumph. I took pride in my accomplishment as an indication that my love/hate relationships with robots had now come full circle. I went from harboring an irrational fear against robots, to having to become a robot myself for the sake of theater. I imagine few other people have had the opportunity to literally become one of their greatest fears. I imagine I’ve emerged from this experience as a stronger, resilient, more accepting person. For the most part. See, this realization does still have something of a caveat. I’d be the biggest hypocrit of all if I didn’t admit that there is still something of a lingering fear of robots living in my mind. As long as we co-exist in harmony, this fear remains relatively latent. I continue to gather knowledge on robots. I keep my memories of my fears of robots as a child very close to my heart. I will watch “Bladerunner” more often than is really necessary. I will remember what it was like to act as Alicia, the robot-woman. All of this information, these memories, and this research are filled will ulterior motives. In the event of an inevitable robot-human apocalyptic war, I’ll be armed with enough information to defeat them. Always know your enemy.