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Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Asimov Legacy (originally published 12/99)

As exciting as artificial intelligence technology is, there is also something just a little bit disquieting about it. After all, we have seen what can happen when human intelligence is misused. It's only natural, then, to wonder what kind of mischief could result from a thinking machine, presumably untroubled by the constraints of a human conscience, that decides one day to go into business for itself instead of merely executing the commands of its human operators. This is the premise explored so chillingly, for example, by Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968), in which the onboard HAL-9000 computer nearly succeeds in wiping out the entire crew of a mission to Jupiter.

A computer, however, is limited in that it has no mobility. If you take the next step by implanting a computer "brain" in a mechanical chassis, giving it the capacity to move around and modify its environment, the risk of potential misadventure is further intesified. That's why robots have been a source of fascination for storytellers in the science fiction genre for decades.

Sooner or later, nearly everyone who writes science fiction deals with robots in one form or another. One name, however, stands head and shoulders above all others when it comes to robot stories: Isaac Asimov. In a series of stories written primarily for a pulp magazine called "Astounding Science Fiction" during the Forties, Asimov set the standard for robot stories from that time forward. Several of these stories were collected in 1950 in a book called "I, Robot." A film based on these seminal robot stories has been discussed for many years but has not, so far, come to fruition. Fortunately, a film adaptation of a much later Asimov robot story, "The Bicentennial Man," did make it to the screen this year. If you've seen "The Bicentennial Man" and would like to compare it to earlier treatments of robots on the screen, look for these titles on home video.

"The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951). In a twist on the old alien invader theme, this film presents us with an alien who comes in peace. Representing a galactic federation, Klaatu (Michael Rennie) comes to caution the citizens of Earth to abandon their warlike ways. When the barbaric earthlings choose to respond with violence, a seven foot tall robot called Gort reinforces the message somewhat more forcefully. The imposing, mute presence of Gort lingers in the memory, as does the only phrase capable of turning aside his implacable wrath: "Klaatu barada nikto."

"Forbidden Planet" (1956). The evolution of science fiction cinema has been a gradual one, but now and then a quantum leap has occurred in the form of a single film that sharply raised the bar in terms of special effects and/or narrative sophistication. "Forbidden Planet" was one of these. The plot revolves around a scientist named Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) who is marooned (more or less voluntarily) on a mysterious planet with his daughter, Altaira (Anne Francis). When a spaceship from Earth lands on this uncharted world, the trouble begins. Cyril Hume's script is loosely based on Shakespeare's "The Tempest," with Morbius as Prospero and Altaira as Miranda. The role of Prospero's supernatural servant, the spirit called Ariel, is fulfilled in "Forbidden Planet" by a robot constructed by Morbius. Going by the name "Robbie," the robot is vaguely humanoid in shape, but instead of a face he sports a clear dome, through which we can catch tantalizing glimpses of his electromechanical innards.

Both Robbie and Gort proved to be popular in their own right, making subsequent guest appearances separate from the films in which they were originated. Gort, for example, can be seen on the cover of Ringo Starr's "Goodnight, Vienna" album. Robbie appeared in a subsequent film, otherwise unrelated to "Forbidden Planet," called "The Invisible Boy" (1957), which is also available on video. The robot character on the "Lost in Space" television series is also quite clearly inspired by Robbie. This phenomenon of robot characters becoming personalities in their own right would not repeat itself until 1977, when "Star Wars" would make overnight celebrities of R2-D2 and C-3P0. Even so, there were plenty of other robots to be found on the screen. Next week we'll look at a few more examples.

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