MTU Discusses the Robot Plot

Tyler Becker

This week Michigan Tech held a panel discussing the tropes and impacts of the robot plot. The robot plot is a story told involving robots in movies, novels, and other forms of entertainment. The panel was comprised of MTU humanities professors Stephanie Carpenter, Dr. Erin Smith, and Dr. Dana van Kooy. The big picture of the panel was to discuss how the plot has evolved through the years, and the impact it has had on the world.

An audience member at the panel started off by asking the big question of what a robot is. Carpenter answered by stating it, “Comes down to the idea of something being manufactured.” Robots are more than machines built out of metal; Frankenstein’s monster was created out of human body parts and should still be defined as a robot. 

The panel leader Dr. Charles Wallace, a computer science professor at MTU, expanded on this by asking, “How do we come to see robots in this way?” A consensus was reached around the reasoning, “robot stories have become predictable.” Typically, there is some secret involved in the story or the story’s robot has deviated from its programming. Even going away from the overarching plot, robots are often associated with negative human emotions. In these films and stories, the robots enact negative human emotions while the humans are depicted with positive emotions.

Robots are often used to bring up fears and values that all humans have. While Star Trek showed a world using technology to advance and explore the world, the more common (and negative) take on technology is evident in movies like Terminator and Ready Player One. In these movies, technology forces people inside their homes. It also forces society to take steps back  instead of stepping forward.

The speakers mentioned that the fear of technology usage could possibly stem from the ethical choices humans are faced with today. As robots grow more and more incorporated into everyday life, the idea of robots helping with childcare has come up. An issue that could emerge from robots aiding in childcare could be the mistreatment of the machines. If kids are given robot dogs and mistreat them, does that make them more susceptible to violence or less empathetic? The same idea applies to robots helping with childcare.

The other looming fact with technology being incorporated into everyday life is that it shows human functions are becoming obsolete. This same idea shows up in narratives of stories where humans fail to accomplish something so the solution is removing humans from the process. A good example of obsoleteness is memory. Human memory can fail and trick us, even to the point of creating stories and fictional memories that can be re told to others. Google immediately solves a gap in memory with a quick internet search. 

Dr. Van Kooy mentioned how humans are becoming more aware of these limits, and we no longer believe our limits are our strengths. Instead, we now view the limits with a more skeptical lens. This is a possible factor in the increase of dystopian stories.