Man v. Machine: Goodguy Cybernauts

Fiction, especially spy fiction, is rife with robots created by evil geniuses bent on world domination and/or destruction. Sometimes those robots are destroyed by superhero secret agents, but sometimes they miraculously develop a moral consciousness, turn on their creators, and choose to do good. Let’s take a look at a pair of those today!

The first is truly a “cybernaut,” a human-looking (specifically Dick Gauthier-looking) bot named Hymie, invented by Dr. Ratton and dispatched by KAOS to kill Maxwell Smart (of Get Smart, naturally). In the end, when Hymie’s creator calls him a monster, he short circuits and is able to overcome his programming and save the day:

Hymie became a full-fledged member of CONTROL, though he was sure to say that his first preference is IBM, which he thought would be a, “nice way to meet some intelligent machines.” I’m wondering if, since the Avengers episode that seems to have coined the term “cybernaut,” hadn’t aired in the U.S. yet, if the episode where Hymie first appears was the first time American audiences heard the word. I also wonder if the writers of Get Smart used the term independently of the Avengers?

(For anyone interested, Dick Gauthier sells autographed pictures of himself as Hymie, for a relatively inexpensive price, as far as celebrity autographs goes.)

Our next good guy robot is not from a secret agent television show, but, like Jonny Quest, exists in a world predicated on Cold War tensions. Even beating out the Pixar movies, which I adore, this is my favorite animated film of all time: The Iron Giant.

Based on a novel by Ted Hughes, The Iron Giant was directed by Brad Bird, who later went on to make The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. The film features a giant metal man who crash lands off the coast of Maine, and the young boy who teaches him about the important things in life: love, fun, Superman. A four-story tall robot is hard to hide, and so rumors begin to spread about the Giant. Those rumors are investigated by the U.S. Army, specifically Kent Mansley, who comes to see the Giant as a threat to the American way. Mansley, though the villain of the piece, does have a semi-valid point: the Iron Giant is a weapon, though with Hogarth’s help, he learns to suppress his violent programming.

If you haven’t seen this film, go out and find it. Playing the voice of the Giant is by far Vin Diesel’s best performance, and I still prefer this over Bird’s Pixar films.

Two questions to think about today:

1. Isn’t a robot that breaks programming, by it’s very nature, defective?

2. Is it wrong (speaking hypothetically) to build robots that do bad, or morally ambigious things, to give them self-awareness to realize this, and yet to not allow them to break their programming?

This post first appeared on the Mister 8 website, 5 June 2009

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