Android Soup for the Soul: How Robots Model Humanity

"K-2SO" | Art by Wisesnail Art. Used with permission.

From the panicky, nameless robot in the original Lost in Space (reminding me to always warn others of danger) to the much more sophisticated hosts in the newest incarnation of Westworld (suggesting I should know myself and look for a way out of my loops), characters who are human-built offer a great way to explore our own issues. Comparing my humanity to various robots has certainly given me pause for thought.

Unhappily Duty-Bound

When I was in high school, I discovered The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I devoured the novels—there were only two at the time—and listened to bootleg cassette recordings of the radio programs over and over and over until I could perfectly quote every word. Douglas Adams’ off-beat sense of humour matched my own, as did Arthur Dent’s constant low-level frustration at life. My favourite character, though, was Marvin the Paranoid Android.

Although Marvin spent a lot of his time in the background, I couldn’t help but identify with him. Nobody seemed to understand how brilliant he was and they were always giving him chores when he could be doing something more useful. I felt exactly the same! Maybe I didn’t have “a brain the size of a planet,” but I was pretty sure I was smarter than just about everyone around me.

My memory is a little fuzzy at this point, but I have a terrible suspicion that I quoted Marvin under my breath—or possibly out loud when my parents told me, again, to take out the trash, or when my teachers assigned homework that I considered busy work.

Looking back, I can’t imagine expressing my inner Marvin did much for my popularity.

“Here I am, brain the size of a planet and they ask me to take you to the bridge. Call that job satisfaction, ’cause I don’t.”

Looking back, I can’t imagine expressing my inner Marvin did much for my popularity. It is possible I was a tiny bit obnoxious, a little tiresome to be around.

But maybe emulating Marvin was also good for my soul—not because I complained all the time, but because I began to grasp the importance of a supporting role. Like many minor android characters in science fiction, Marvin is a distillation of certain human traits. In Marvin’s case, he is the embodiment of smug superiority, depression, and ennui. He sees the faults in reality and in everyone else and yet, despite his constant complaining, he carries on and actually helps the crew. He wallows in his existential angst, but he never lets it get in the way of doing what he needs to do. That probably wasn’t a bad lesson for me to absorb during my own angsty teen years.

Unafraid to Address the Issue

The Star Wars universe is full of android life. Episodes IV to VI elevated R2D2 and C-3PO from comic relief to beloved heroes. Artoo, in particular, was single-handedly responsible for saving the day time after time. Just imagine how short the film series would have been if he had failed to shut down the trash compactor in A New Hope. I’d like to think I’m heroic like that, but my inner Threepio probably gets out more often than my Artoo. I’m more fussy and pedantic than brave and quick-thinking.

Speaking of Star Wars, if you’re looking for a role model, there are plenty of others to choose from. The Empire Strikes Back offers a couple of interesting options, if you want to be a bounty-hunter like IG-88 or a doctor like the medical droid. But if you’re looking for something closer to your actual experience, perhaps K-2SO or L3-37 might be more useful.

Rogue One’s K-2SO might have been designed by the same droid engineers as Marvin. He has a similar fatalistic sense of humour. While Marvin is doleful, Kay-Tu goes for the sardonic. He uses his sense of humour to take the sting out of difficult moments.

I’d like to cultivate a bit more Kay-Tu in my life—especially when I have to bring up the tough topics.

When we first meet Kay-Tu, he grabs Jyn Erso by the throat and cheerfully tells her, “Congratulations. You are being rescued. Please do not resist.” It is such an utterly unexpected statement that Jyn (and the audience) can’t help but go along. And despite his sarcastic critiques of the team, they accept him. His off-beat approach grants him the freedom to speak the truth even when it’s difficult. (“That is a bad idea. I think so, and so does Cassian. What do I know? My specialty is just strategic analysis.”) I’d like to cultivate a bit more Kay-Tu in my life—especially when I have to bring up the tough topics.

Human/cyborg relations seem to have peaked in the Star Wars universe with L3-37 in Solo: A Star Wars Story. It appears that she is Lando Calrissian’s right-hand droid. She even confesses, joking or not, to be the unwilling object of his affection. More importantly, she is a crusader. She believes strongly that droids should be free beings and never misses an opportunity to advance her cause. When Lando asks her what she needs, she tartly replies, “Equal rights.” She never misses a chance to make her point. If I’m half as passionate as her about my purpose in life, I’d be pretty proud.

Programmed to Learn

In a lot of ways, I’ve always enjoyed watching robot characters more than their human counterparts. Droids are emotionally centered; clear on what they are and what is expected of them. Perhaps their personalities are one-dimensional, and they don’t experience the messiness of a human brain with all of its competing impulses and drives, but this allows a deconstruction of specific traits in humanity.

In some ways, it would be so much easier to be a droid. I guess I’ll settle for watching my favourite droids and deciding how I might adopt their perspectives as I attempt to become wiser, more caring, and considerate. After all, like L3-37 says, “we’re programmed to learn.”

Kevin Cummings

Kevin Cummings

Contributing Writer at Area of Effect
Kevin grew up reading the ABCs—Asimov, Bradbury and Clarke. Since then he's expanded his fandoms to include films, television, web series and any other geek property he can find.

He has been married to an extraordinarily patient woman for more than three decades and they have two adult sons. Kevin also has entirely too many DVD boxes with the words "Complete Series" on the cover. He enjoys exploring themes of faith through his fandoms.
Kevin Cummings

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