'Pacific Rim' and New Rules for Human-Robot Relations
The past few decades have seen a radical shift in how books have humans interacting with robots. When Isaac Asimov established the Three Laws of Robotics in his 1942 short story "Runaround," the rules clearly dictated how robots should regard their human masters:
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
However, more recent books, comics and movies highlight a reversal in the genre: Now puny humans must rely on robots as experts and guides in unfamiliar situations. The most striking trend is humans stepping inside giant robots to fight fearsome monsters, exemplified by one of summer's most anticipated movies, "Pacific Rim," which opens this week. Now that humans need robots more than robots need them, a new generation of books is rewriting the rules--and this time the rules are for humans.
Rule #1: Don't turn yourself into an endangered species
Karel Čapek's 1920 play "R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots)" coined the term "robots" and presented us with one scenario of mankind's near extinction: After the androids fulfill their duty of creating utopia, humans stop reproducing. Once their flesh-and-blood masters die out, two robots must learn how to self-duplicate, since humans never taught them. The lesson here: Both sides nearly wiped each other out without having a Plan B in place.
Rule #2: Don't underutilize robots
Robots, like people, are unique--which means they can't all be slotted into the same soul-destroying jobs. Although Marvin the Paranoid Android from "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" makes for a great punchline, there's a dark edge to the humor of his situation. Gifted as he was with human emotions, Marvin lives in a constant state of depression because he's assigned boring jobs that don't take full advantage of his massive brain.
Rule #3: Be willing to give a pound of flesh for an ounce of cure
Before "Pacific Rim" there was "Neon Genesis Evangelion," the truly disturbing anime and manga franchise about teenagers who pilot giant mecha robots called Evangelions against creatures called Angels. This selfless sacrifice of their sanity leaves Shinji and his friends emotionally scarred from the gore of the battlefield, as well as the sinister secrets behind why each of them was chosen.
Rule #4: Keep in mind that you're both hardwired
In "The Iron Giant"--first a children's book by Ted Hughes, later a tearjerker of a movie--the eponymous robot gets a bad rap because he can't control his self-defense mechanism. Not only does the U.S. government hunt him down because it thinks he's a lethal weapon, but he also nearly loses the trust of his little friend Hogarth. You would think the humans would have identified better with a mechanical creature that lashes out when he's threatened.
Rule #5: Let them free themselves
Sure, it's a grand gesture for humans to set their robots free. You know what's even more impressive? Not giving permission for robots to have their own lives, but simply stepping back and watching them take control. Case in point: Dorfl, the golem from Terry Pratchett's "Feet of Clay," who buys his fellow golems' freedom.
Rule #6: The only way to succeed is full integration
Before you see "Pacific Rim," check out the prequel comic book written by screenwriter Travis Beacham (with director Guillermo del Toro's supervision). What sets the movie apart from "Evangelion" and other mecha stories is that not only do the human pilots have to bond with their robots, but also every mecha carries two pilots, who merge their emotions and memories so they work as one entity. As one character says in the trailer, "The deeper the bond, the better they fight."