In science fiction, robots can be friendly, helpful machines -- C-3P0 from the "Star Wars" movie series or the watchful B-9 from the 1960s TV series "Lost in Space," who scurried about on his tank-track feet waving his arms and shouting, "Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!" immediately come to mind.
But lest we humans become too complacent about the anthropomorphic super-powered mechanical servants that we fantasize about someday creating, it's important to remember the old saying that we should be careful what we wish for. The robots we envision as our tireless, loyal friends easily could morph into frighteningly formidable adversaries. And it wouldn't take much to flip the balance.
The great sci-fi author Isaac Asimov was among the first to recognize this unsettling risk. In his 1942 short story "Runaround," later republished in the 1950 collection "I, Robot," Asimov set forth what he called the Three Laws of Robotics, which were designed to protect us from our synthetic progeny. First: A robot may not injure a human being, or allow one to come to harm through inaction. Second: A robot must obey human orders, as long as they don't contradict the first law. Third: A robot must protect itself, but only to the extent that it doesn't conflict with the first and second laws [source: Asimov].
But in many instances in our fantasy future, those rules are honored mostly in the breach. Here are 10 examples of fictional robots that have murder in their artificial hearts.
Rossum's Universal Robots
In 1920, Czech playwright Karel Capek basically invented the "kill all humans!" meme. In his play, "Rossum's Universal Robots (R.U.R.)," he envisioned that humans would create not just dumb mechanical men, but a sophisticated artificial life form fashioned from synthetic bones and flesh, through a process vaguely resembling today's cloning and genetic engineering technology.
The robots -- from robata, the Czech word for forced labor or servitude -- originally are used as factory workers who tirelessly perform grueling work and don't have to be paid. But pretty soon, nations are amassing armies of robots, whose unquestioning obedience and lack of sentiment or morals makes them highly-efficient, ruthless super-soldiers willing to slaughter anyone who gets in their way. Teaching robots to kill, of course, turns out not to be the most brilliant idea ever conceived by humankind, but what really starts things headed downhill is when a misguided do-gooder social activist named Helena Glory decided that the robots are being cruelly oppressed, and convinces a scientist to modify them so that they have the emotional intelligence to perceive their plight.
Pretty soon, a robotic version of Ernesto "Che" Guevara is exhorting the robot masses to overthrow their meat-body overlords. In the ensuing revolution, almost the entire human race is wiped out, save for a lone soul named Alquist, who is spared because he actually still performs labor. But the robots' victory proves to be a pyrrhic one, because humans manage to destroy the manufacturing process for robots before they are wiped out, and the robots can't figure out how to replicate it. The robots themselves begin to die out, until two of them develop the ability to love one another, and Alquist modifies the female robot so that she can reproduce the old-fashioned way [source: Angelo].
Director James Cameron's 1984 movie "The Terminator," starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a cyborg assassin, was such a hit that it inspired several sequels. Schwarznegger's freakishly hypertrophied physique and unwavering lack of emotional affect make him utterly believable as a killing machine, and his line "I'll be back," uttered at a police station that he subsequently returns to destroy has become a pop culture catchphrase.
But what's equally compelling about the "Terminator" fictional universe is its updated version of Capek's basic theme, which is that humans are so darned clever that they'll inevitably invent a machine that will destroy them.
In the "Terminator" movies, the murderous machine is Skynet, a supercomputer network with artificial intelligence abilities, which Pentagon scientists in the mid-1990s create to run the nation's defenses. When Skynet, on its own, develops self-awareness, its makers try to shut it down, which leads the network to trigger a nuclear war in an effort to wipe out the species that it now sees as a threat. After the dust clears, Skynet creates an assortment of other robotic devices, including the Terminators, to hunt down and slaughter the remaining humans who stand in the way of its global supremacy. Skynet is so relentless that in the first film, it sends a robot portrayed by Schwarzenegger back in time in a fruitless effort to assassinate Sarah Connor, the mother of a future human rebel leader John Connor. In the 1991 sequel "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," Skynet tries again, this time sending a more advanced Terminator with shape-shifting capabilities to kill the teenage version of John Connor [source: Westfahl].
One eerie thing about the "Terminator" saga is that it parallels the actual predictions of artificial intelligence visionary Ray Kurzweil, who says that in the next 50 years, machine intelligence will equal and then start to surpass human brainpower [source: Tucker].
In the 1951 sci-fi classic "The Day the Earth Stood Still," (remade in 2008 with Keanu Reeves in the lead role), the intimidating robot comes from another world, not ours. But in way, humans are still responsible for its threat. A crisis begins when a flying saucer lands in Washington, D.C., and an extraterrestrial ambassador named Klaatu (portrayed by Michael Rennie) emerges on what he intends as a mission of friendship. He's promptly shot by a trigger-happy human soldier. That sends Klaatu's robotic assistant, Gort, into action.
You don't want to mess with Gort, and not just because he's a silvery behemoth so imposing that he makes Shaquille O'Neil look like Mini Me from the "Austin Powers" movies. Gort wears a visor equipped with a disintegrating ray gun capable of turning the armaments wielded by puny humans into wisps of vapor. We bone-bags are pretty much helpless against him, and that's the whole point. At the climax of the movie, soldiers again attack Klaatu and apparently kill him, only to see him revived by Gort's mysterious, vaguely defined powers. But Gort, probably the most recognizable sci-fi robot after the Terminator, is more of a deterrent killer robot than an evil one -- at the end of movie, the aliens inform Earth that he and other killer robots are being left in place around Earth to deter human aggressiveness, and that if we try to extend our murderous ways into space, they're empowered to wipe out humanity.
As sci-fi historians Michelle Le Blanc and Colin Odell write, "This paradox is one of many that typify the film -- the threat of unimaginable violence as a means to prevent war" [source: Westfahl].
In the fictional dystopia depicted in the "Matrix" trilogy of films directed by the Wachowskis in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the basic scenario is that reality is a computer-generated illusion, and that a giant artificial-intelligence network has taken over Earth and reduced humans to comatose husks deluded by data, who are kept alive only to provide body heat and electrical energy that can be siphoned off to power the network. Not all humans are down with that, however, and a motley assortment of meat-body rebels -- including a superhuman savior-prodigy named Neo, portrayed by Keanu Reeves -- persist in doing battle with the Matrix and its robotic minions [source: Greenwood].
Perhaps the scariest of the latter are the Sentinels -- giant cephalopod-like automatons -- who are sent down into the sewers and underground passageways of long-dead human cities to stalk human rebels and destroy them. In one of the more intriguing life-imitates-art twists in technology, a Glasgow, Scotland-based company named Breval in 2007 unveiled an actual robot modeled after the Sentinels. Breval's Wizard robot, however, is much smaller than the Sentinels, and equipped with eight wheels rather than metal feelers. More importantly, its mission is to clear ventilation ducts of bacteria and other contaminants, not humans [source: Christensen].
Science fiction author Philip K. Dick was a master of the killer robot genre, partly because he imagined a future in which technology would become so advanced that the distinction between humans and machines would blur. And that works, because we all know how over-the-top murderous humans can be. Dick achieved his greatest fame from the 1982 film "Blade Runner," based upon his novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep," which depicts a policeman (portrayed by Harrison Ford) in pursuit of a killer android named Roy (Rutger Hauer) -- who, as it turns out, is not so different from his nemesis. But Roy's menace is tempered by one fact: He murders not out of blood lust, but in a futile effort to survive past his expiration date.
For pure kill-all-humans evil, we're better off with the Claws from Dick's 1953 short story "Second Variety." In that tale, written during the Cold War, the Claws are autonomous self-replicating robots created by the U.S. to fight the Soviets in the wake of a nuclear war that scorched the planet and reduced it to a nightmarish wasteland. The problem is that the Claws, who are anthropomorphic, do their job too well. After they kill off the Soviets, they need a new reason to exist, and thus set their sights on eliminating the Americans -- and eventually each other [source: Dick]. The Claws were the inspiration for the killing machines in the 1995 movie "Screamers," which takes the Dick story and sets it on a mining colony in another solar system.
The Marvel Comics Web site describes Ultron as "a criminally insane rogue sentient robot dedicated to conquest and the extermination of humanity." To which you might respond, "Well, OK, that sounds pretty negative, but surely he must have a few good points too." Not to disappoint you, but he doesn't. Ultron isn't a robotic slave driven into a rage by his servitude, like Rossum's robots, or an avenging angel like Gort, who seeks to deter humans from their own evil nature. Nope, Ultron is just a thoroughly unredeemable mess of metal, who just hates people because, well, that's what it does.
He gets that from his human creator, the scientific whiz Dr. Henry Pym, who initially gave Ultron a pathetically weird body -- basically, a torso on tank treads with spindly arms -- and endowed it with a copy of his own twisted brain patterns as operating software. As a result, Ultron quickly developed an intense hatred for both Pym and the human species in general, and after overpowering his creator and taking over his lab, the machine rebuilt himself into a broad-chested behemoth. Pretty soon, he's tangling with the Avengers, and creating a series of new and even more powerful bodies for himself. In the process, Ultron expands his mission, aiming not just to wipe out humanity, but all organic life as well.
But even exterminating robots get lonely. At one point, Ultron tried to create a mate for himself called Alkhema (aka "War Toy"). But first romances usually end badly, and this one was no exception; after quarreling with Ultron about how quickly all life on Earth should be wiped out, Alkhema not only stomped off in a hissy fit, but actually helped the Avengers foil one of her ex's fiendish plots. That'll serve him right [source: Marvel].
The Voc Robots
These nasty machines appeared in a cycle of classic episodes of BBC's sci-fi drama "Dr. Who" in the late 1970s, entitled "The Robots of Death." The Voc Robots don't have an explicit plan to kill the entire human race, but they probably wouldn't mind having one, since they enthusiastically exterminate every human they encounter in various grisly ways.
The story begins when the TARDIS, Dr. Who's spacecraft/time capsule, materializes aboard a mining ship that's combing an alien world for precious minerals. The "miner" is run by a small human crew, with the assistance of a robot workforce equipped with strange, Greek statue-like metallic faces and red eyes. Dr. Who (portrayed by Tom Baker) discovers that the crew is a bit freaked out, because they're being picked off, one by one, by an unseen killer. The latter turns out to be the evil human scientist Taren Capel, who as a child who was raised by robots, in a curious reworking of the "Tarzan of the Apes" narrative. Even though he has a meat body -- undoubtedly, to his chagrin -- Capel is a robot supremacist, and he busily reprograms all of the mining ship's robots, the Vocs, to kill the remaining members of the human crew.
Unfortunately for Capel, Dr. Who tricks him into inhaling helium, which alters his voice, which causes the killer robots not to recognize him as their co-conspirator, so that they kill him. In the end, Dr. Who himself narrowly avoids being choked out by a Voc who apparently has been practicing a robotic jujitsu, and escapes to continue his adventures [source: BBC].
The Robot Gunslinger
With his steely eyes, broad shoulders and then-exotic bald pate that gleamed menacingly from under the brim of a black Stetson, actor Yul Brynner was a scary-looking hombre, one who looked as if he'd put a bullet through your heart as soon as look at you. And he used that ambiance to good effect, playing gunslingers in movies such as director John Sturges 1960 epic "The Magnificent Seven."
So it was doubly chilling when Brynner portrayed a robotic version of his customary black-clad six gun-toting killer in "Westworld," a 1973 sci-fi thriller written and directed by Michael Crichton. The movie depicts an interactive theme park complex of the future, in which tourists seeking macho thrills pay $1,000 a day to pretend to be in medieval Europe, ancient Rome, or the Old West of the 1880s, and then do battle with incredibly realistic androids, which are subtly programmed to put on a convincing show and then let the humans win. But for a pair of Chicago businessmen portrayed by Richard Benjamin and James Brolin, who indulge their fantasies at Westworld, the problem is that the androids develop a glitch in their software -- "central mechanism psychosis" -- and start killing people instead of entertaining them.
The first sign that something is amiss: Brolin's character has a mock showdown with Brynner's character, the fake cowtown's sheriff, who shoots and kills him for real. Brynner than stalks the terrified Benjamin, who's forced to contend with the same sort of "it's fun until technology runs amok" meme that Crichton utilized repeatedly in his career, most notably in his best-selling novel "Jurassic Park." In any case, Brynner was so convincing as a malevolent robot that New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby wrote that his character "has no more humanity or sense of justice than a multicycle washing machine" [source: Canby].
The Robot City
Probably the biggest -- and strangest -- killer robot in science fiction appears in "The City," a short story from Ray Bradbury's 1951 anthology "The Illustrated Man." The tale begins when a rocket from Earth lands on a distant planet, Taollan, and a team of astronauts discover an immense mechanized city, run by a computer network, which oddly has remained running even though it doesn't seem to have flesh-and-blood inhabitants anymore.
When the crew's leader tells his men to draw their guns as they probe the seemingly empty metropolis, one responds: "The city's dead, why worry?" Not exactly, though. The city itself is a giant synthetic organism, which is quietly observing their movements, weighing and measuring them, and even noting their human aroma. When the crew isn't looking, the city springs a trapdoor and abducts the captain, who is promptly vivisected to verify that he is an Earthling. As it turns out, the city is a trap, left behind by Taollan's original inhabitants.
Twenty thousand years before, a previous team of human explorers enslaved and eventually killed off the extraterrestrial species with infectious disease. Before they died out, the Taollanians built the robot city so that it would keep running, until humans someday wandered back to the planet. The robot city captures the rest of the astronauts, kills them, and replaces their insides with robotic parts and wiring. Then the city sends the astronauts back to Earth in their spaceship -- which is infected with a virus that will wipe out humanity. The story ends with these chilling words: "Slowly, pleasurably, the city enjoyed the luxury of dying" [source: Bradbury].
If you've had enough scary robots by now, it's time for one who makes malevolence funny. Bender, a member of the cast of the animated TV comedy series "Futurama," is more of a menace to propriety than a genuine threat to humankind. A sort of twisted doppelganger of the loyal, anxiously obsequious mechanical servant C-3P0 from the "Star Wars" film series, Bender -- originally built in a Mexican factory as a metal-bending device -- is a lazy slacker who consumes copious amounts of alcohol as fuel and contemptuously derides his human masters as "meatbags" [sources: Muljadi, Futurama]. As "Futurama" creator Matt Groening explained in a Wired interview: "He (Bender) is totally corrupt. He shoplifts. He thrives on the things that harm humans. He actually gets energy from smoking cigars and drinking beer. Bender also gets us around censor problems -- he can't be a bad role model for kids, because he is just a robot" [source: Kelly].
Bender does occasionally spout the stock robotic rhetoric about human annihilation, but it's really more wishful thinking than actual intent, since he's too apathetic and cynical to develop the sort of idealistic outrage that drove his literary ancestors in "Rossum's Universal Robots (R.U.R.)" In one episode, for example, Bender's human roommate, Fry, feels compelled to rouse the sleeping robot from a dream, in which he is murmuring "Kill all humans, kill all humans, must kill all humans..." Upon awakening, Bender explains: "I was having the most wonderful dream. I think you were in it" [source: Imdb].
How do you protect your privacy from the spying eyes of potentially invasive drones? HowStufWorks looks at public fears against the backdrop of the law.
Author's Note: 10 Evil Robots Bent on Destroying Humanity
I grew up in the 1960s reading comic books and watching TV shows that featured anthropomorphic robots -- that is, ones designed to resemble humans and, to a degree, act like them. As a grown-up science writer, of course, I've come to understand that although we live in an age in which we're surrounded by actual robots, most of them are really glorified remote-control tools, such as the mechanical arms that paint cars on assembly lines and da Vinci, the machine that performs prostate cancer surgery with amazing deftness. Even so, I still harbor a fascination for machines that would not only mimic humans, but possibly blur the distinction.
Back in 2005, for example, I went to the Wired NextFest in Chicago, and got a chance to see a glimpse of that possible future, an android designed by robotics researcher David Hanson. The machine not only bore a striking resemblance to the late science fiction author Philip K. Dick, but was also programmed to utter cryptic statements that evoked Dick's obsession with the existential no-man's land that separated the artificial from the organic. For the first time, I got a sense of what it might be like if robots actually were alive and sentient, as they are in science fiction.
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