Donna Haraway, a cultural theorist who has written several books on cyborg theory, has a bold definition for the the contemporary Westernized human being: We, too, are cyborgs (or “cybernetic humans,” if we’re getting technical). It sounds extreme, but it’s just a simple distinction: Haraway argues in her new book The Digital Cyborg Assemblage and the New Digital Health Technologies that the combination of a living creature and non-living creature of thought is a cyborg. Those non-living creatures capable of thought are advanced robots, theoretically using artificial intelligence designed by a human programmer.
Robots have been popular characters in science fiction media for decades, but they usually tend to be portrayed as either dangerously logical and old, or, more recently, as more human and empathetic than their creators. As such, we’ve put together a list of fictional robots whose humanity outshone the human nature of their creators. Somehow, whether through a “ghost in the machine” or a small oversight in design, these robots make choices we’d all hope we’d make. Part of their developing artificial psyches involves recognizing themselves as “other”, apart from their human creators, and in many cases, better and more morally driven.
If a human with added technology is a cyborg, doesn’t that mean that a computer with added human-like components (imagination, empathy, ego) a cyborg as well?
Appears: The Venture Bros., Adult Swim, 2003-present
Creators: Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer
Voiced by: Jackson Publick, whose voice is fed through Soul-Bot
H.E.L.P.eR. (Helpful Electronic Lab Partner Robot) is a lovable, neurotic artificial creature, designed by Jonas Venture to function as a nanny for Rusty, who grows up to abuse H.E.L.P.eR. Though H.E.L.P.eR’s insistence on fulfilling his role as domestic caretaker makes him definitely robotic, he is capable of loving Hank and Dean in a way that their own father doesn’t.
H.E.L.P.eR’s creator, Jonas Venture, is portrayed in flashbacks as a kind and intelligent man, but H.E.L.P.eR’s current owner is petty, selfish and cruel in a way that H.E.L.P.eR can’t quite understand. Though H.E.L.P.eR is technically equally as human as Jonas, considering both character’s concern for others and H.E.L.P.eR’s introspective worry and doubt, the robot is significantly more human and familiar than Rusty Venture.
Appears in: Ex Machina, 2015
Written and directed by: Alex Garland
Portrayed by: Alicia Vikander
One of the most engrossing mysteries in Ex Machina is Ava’s conception. It seems strange that so honest, curious and independent a robot could come from Nathan Bateman, a software designer who’s depicted as cruel and mysoginsioc. So much of Ex Machina is steeped in gender politics — Ava finds her freedom by harnessing the male gaze, but she discards it when escaping — but the film poses several interesting questions regarding artificial intelligence as well.
Is Ava manipulative? If so, did she learn this behavior from watching her human creator manipulate other robots and people? Her humanity isn’t borne of empathy, but out of drive and determination. Over the course of Ex Machina, Ava comes to understand herself as an individual, not human but still worth the escape from her creator. In choosing a life of her own, she proves herself more human than either Bateman or Bateman’s other female robots.
Appears in: I, Robot, 2004
Written by: Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman, inspired by Isaac Asimov
Directed by: Alex Proyas
Portrayed by: Alan Tudyk, through motion capture
Say what you want about I, Robot - it’s cheesy, overwritten and has a rudimentary plot, but when the film was released in 2004, it was the first time a science fiction movie had ventured to explore artificial intelligence in years. Sonny, the film’s central robot, is set apart from other machines like him, because his creator gave him the ability to dream.
Sonny’s creator wasn’t cruel or inhuman, but the fiction company producing robots like Sonny is run by humans who want power, regardless of casualties. When Sonny steps in to save both humans and robots from an all-powerful operating system, he proves himself transcendently more human than any of the film’s other characters. In Sonny’s case, humanity means self-sacrifice for the greater good, and the ability to imagine.
The Iron Giant
Appears in: The Iron Giant, 1999
Written by: Tim McCanlies, inspired by Ted Hughes
Directed by: Brad Bird
Voiced by: Vin Diesel
The only thing we know about the Iron Giant’s origins was that he was meant to be an artificially intelligent, humanoid weapon. After crash landing on earth and losing most of his memory, the Giant learns empathy and imagination from a human boy, Hogarth.
The Giant makes the ultimate sacrifice at the end of the film, choosing his own humanity to protect even people who want to kill him. If we get too far into analyzing the Iron Giant as a superhero, we’ll run into the kind of human vs superhuman conversations the X-Men are always having, so let’s just leave it at that.
Appears in: Blade Runner, 1982
Written by: Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, inspired by Philip K. Dick
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Portrayed by: Rutger Hauer
One could easily compare Roy Batty’s famous “tears in the rain monologue” to Scarlett Johanssen’s dialogue in Her; both artificially intelligent characters try to explain their worldview to a human who wants something specific from them, and both creatures believe they are more than human, because of what their technological capabilities have allowed them to do and see.
When Roy dies in the rain, finally losing to Decker after having been chased throughout the whole film, his goodbye to consciousness comes with a promise: that all of the super-human knowledge he’s amassed during his “life” will be lost without him to recount it.
Appears in: A.I. Artificial Intelligence, 2001
Written and directed by: Steven Spielberg
Portrayed by: Haley Joel Osment
In 2001, Steven Spielberg introduced a topic that has recently been perfected in Image’s Descender comic: what would an artificially intelligent child look like? Would that non-organic child have the same learning ability, or the same quest for companionship and love?
In A.I., the protagonist robot boy becomes more human by demonstrating a repeated, and intense, need for a maternal figure. At the end of the film, David is granted a final day with Monica, his human mother who rejected him for being a “mecha”, and therefore not “real”, boy. David’s humanity is, unlike the humanity of other fictional robots, entirely dependent on his relationship with other humans. He is made into a cyborg, or a robotic human or human-like robot, through his relationship with his mother.
Appears in: Aliens, 1986
Written and directed by: James Cameron
Portrayed by: Lance Henriksen
Bishop, the android onboard the USS Sulaco, had a lot to prove to Ripley, whose life was ruined by another android, Ash, in the first Alien film. Luckily for Bishop, his creators imbued him with a more advanced understanding of human values, and in the film’s final moments, he heaves his torn-apart body in order to save Ripley from the xenomorph Queen, and the open airlock. Though the human forces guiding Ripley’s two space journeys are characterized as unfeeling and more devoted to science than protecting their crew, Bishop makes choices which benefit Ripley, and his connection to her makes him more human than the people who designed him.
Though Bishop was certainly a robot who considered himself an ally of humankind, Prometheus was the Alien-franchise film most interested in android psychology. The prequel’s android, David, was featured in the film’s promotional materials as an unnerving human replicant. David makes clear that he can, and will, carry out objectives his “human counterparts would find distressing or unethical,” and he adds that though he can replicate and illustrate human emotion, he cannot understand it.
Appears in: Flubber, 1997
Written by: Bill Walsh, John Hughes
Directed by: Les Mayfield
Voiced by: Jodi Benson
Weebo is an especially interesting example of artificial intelligence because she falls in love with her creator. She understands, tragically, that she isn’t human and can’t satisfy him, but in watching human-made romance films, she frames her devotion to her creator as a romantic urge.
We experience the way Weebo views her creator, Professor Philip Brainard, while recognizing before she does that he’s too self-involved to notice her human emotions. Weebo can be read as more human than the Professor because she desires him, and feels at odds with her robotic identity.
Appears in: Battlestar Galactica, 2004-2009
Developed by: Ronald D. Moore, Glen A. Larson
Portrayed by: Tricia Helfer, Grace Park, Dean Stockwell, Callum Keith Rennie, Lucy Lawless, Rick Worthy, Matthew Bennett
The Cylons of Battlestar Galactica are a uniquely interesting case of artificial intelligence because many of them don’t know they’re non-human until they reach adulthood. After experiencing a traumatic schism in personality, and after being socially ostracized, the Cylons do something their robotic creators did not intend for them to do: they choose, as individuals, whether to ally themselves with their creators, or with humans.
Though each Cylon’s humanity could be analyzed individually, as a group they’re markedly more human than their creators because they want to be human. Like I, Robot’s Sonny, many of the humanoid Cylons envision a world in which they’re not accepted as fully human, but instead as humanity’s allies. This ability to compromise makes them more familiar to the viewer than the metal, earlier version of Cylons who created them.