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Man vs. Machine?: Robots on Film–Fiction vs. Reality

The new millennium truly is the technological age. Everywhere we go, we carry computers with us in the palm of our hands. Today’s technology shapes the way we work, the way we learn, the way we interact. And as artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and virtual reality continue to infiltrate essentially every aspect of modern life, it’s getting harder every day to draw the line between human and machine.

But while the rising generation of digital natives might fancy themselves the pioneers of this brave new world of technology, the fact is that robotics have been on humans’ minds for more than a century. And they’ve played starring roles in some of the most memorable films of the last 50 years.

In this article, we’re going to take a brief look at the history of robots on film—and see just how close yesterday’s fantasies are to today’s realities!

The Terminator

Of course, if you’re talking about robots on film, there’s no escaping (literally) the 1984 classic The Terminator, the film that gave rise to a blockbuster series and made Arnold Schwarzenegger an action film icon.

Fortunately, Schwarzenegger’s infamous robot-slash-assassin doesn’t have a whole lot in common with today’s robots. In fact, today you’re more likely to find robots caring for people in need than traveling through time to kill Sarah Connor.

All around the world today, you can find robots in hospitals, nursing homes, and even private homes. These robots can do everything from dispensing medication to monitoring elderly patients in their home. They can even help build emotional connections with people dealing with the stress of hospital environments, from greeting patients’ families to helping pediatric patients relax before a medical procedure.

HAL 9000

While HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey isn’t exactly a robot, he certainly exemplifies everything creepy, disturbing, and downright terrifying we might have felt about the possibilities of good tech going bad. Really, really bad.

Nowadays, more than 50 years after Kubrick’s big-screen nightmare made even the friendly little toaster oven look menacing, artificial technologies not unlike the Heuristically Programmed Algorithmic Computer have come to dominate virtually every aspect of modern daily life.

But that doesn’t mean we’ve entirely made our peace with HAL’s real-life electronic brethren. We may be living with AI today, but we’re always exactly thrilled about it—at least not when it comes to healthcare.

For all the robot nurses, mHealth technologies, and telemedicine apps, studies show that patients and care providers continue to be wary of some of the new medical technologies, fearing the tech is too impersonal or too unreliable for medical use. After all, HAL wasn’t exactly the poster boy (er, poster AI?) for happy, healthy human/robot partnerships!

Cyborg

Of course, both on film and in reality, it’s not always about the machine and the man. Sometimes, it’s about the machine in the man. Enter DC Comics’ famous half-man, half-robot superhero, Cyborg.

Cyborg’s been popping up all over the big and small screens in recent years, from playing a prominent supporting role in 2014’s Superman vs. Batman to headlining Cartoon Network’s Teen Titans animated series and films.

Cyborg is even slated to join Warner Brothers’ roster of live-action feature film title heroes in 2020, joining the ranks of such icons of the DC Universe such as Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Shazam to finally get some Hollywood love after decades of neglect. And that seems to be all a part of DC Comics’ master plan to finally inject some more diversity and storylines that look a little bit more like life in the 21st century.

Making Cyborg the hero of his own long-awaited feature film actually suggests some pretty savvy timing on the part of the DC Comics’ powers-that-be. After all, not many of us are going to grow gills and relocate to our undersea palace like Aquaman did. We’re not going to be deflecting bullets with our golden bracelets or extracting confessions from bad guys with our Lasso of Truth like Wonder Woman.

But more of us than ever are getting a taste of what it feels like to be a cyborg. A recent study from the Mayo Clinic found more than 7 million Americans are living with an artificial knee or hip.

Not only that, but an increasing number of knee replacements are being performed robotically, And those robot surgeons are turning out to be even more effective than their human counterparts. Equipped with ridiculously sensitive, multi-cameras and flexibility that would make a Cirque du Soleil star jealous, robots can better fit implants with fewer cuts.

The Takeaway

Humans’ fascination with robots is nothing new. In fact, it’s led to some of the most iconic characters and films of the 20th century—and the 21st is turning out to be no different. From the Terminator, to Cyborg, to HAL, robots on film are not only speaking to our own fears and desires, but they’re also giving us a glimpse of our future. As for whether that’s a good or a bad thing, well, we’ll leave that up to you. Right, HAL?

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Agents of Geek

Agents of Geek

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