Chappie and the desire for emotional machines

10 Jan

Sony Pictures released a vastly improved trailer for the upcoming movie Chappie. The effects look good and the cast is intriguing: Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver, and both Yolandi and Ninja from Die Antwoord (who seem to be playing versions of themselves).

At one point in the trailer, Dev Patel says, “What interests me is a machine that can think and feel.”  Hmm.

Why is it important to us to create machines that have — or at least, emulate — human emotion?  Is it a God complex or a reproductive urge? Do we think that emotion is a necessary partner to higher-order thinking? Do we fear rationality without emotion? Do we think such machines would be more flexible or simply more relatable? Do we think this is a way to learn more about ourselves? Is there a tipping point past which a sentient and active machine seems like a slave unless it has emotion?

I enjoy the sentient and emotional machine trope as much as anyone, but I wonder about what it says about us that the good guys want emotional robots and the bad ones want rational and obedient machines. Perhaps its merely a cinematic/literary device standing in for the outsider, the person who sees things differently than the “automatons” around him- or herself, the underdog that we want to succeed and be validated. Has there been a (relatively) popular work in which the protagonist advocated on behalf of machines without emotion and the black hats wanted humanistic ones? I’m curious to explore that.

I don’t have a lot of deep thoughts or research summaries to share on this yet, but it has given me something to ponder.

Update: My husband, who has read vastly more science fiction than I have, was able to come up with a tiny solitary example so far. From The Simpsons, of all sources:


Posted by on January 10, 2015 in Our Robot Overlords, Video


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6 responses to “Chappie and the desire for emotional machines

  1. Becky

    January 10, 2015 at 2:39 pm

    Your last question got me thinking and the first example I came up with is Battlestar Galactica (e.g. the Cylons). In the re-imagined version (2004), the uber-cylons are humanoid models – referred to derisively as “skin jobs”. As part of being indistinguishable from humans in nearly every way, the cylons are also portrayed as emotional as any human being. Any human seen to be helping them (i.e. Gaius Baltar – the “black hat”) is considered a traitor to humanity. The protagonists (humans) are locked into a mutual genocidal war with the Cylons, who were originally created by the humans of Caprica to be cybernetic workers and soldiers (which looked very similar to the robots pictured in the trailer you shared)

    • Kay

      January 10, 2015 at 3:07 pm

      Oooh! Thanks for bringing that one up, Becky. I hadn’t thought of Battlestar and I see your point. I’m going to have to consider it further (excuse to rewatch episodes!). There were a lot of complicated things going on with the Final Five, and I read a lot of it as the human fear of deception and betrayal.

      • Becky

        January 11, 2015 at 9:26 am

        If you can get your hands on the Prequel Series “Caprica”, that tells the origin story of the Cylons, which is very interesting, and probably more relevant to your inquiry, in its own right.

      • Kay

        January 11, 2015 at 9:50 am

        🙂 I adored Caprica. It was such anthro sci-fi: various religions, ethnicities, family constructs, plus the questions of machine consciousness, ethics, and then everything around V-World. Thanks; it’s moved to the top of my re-watch list as I ponder this!

      • Becky

        January 11, 2015 at 10:44 am

        On that note, the next salon is going to be on “Fictional works that every SLer should know – and why?”, and Caprica will definitely be on mine. so start working that list! 🙂

  2. Tizzy Canucci

    January 13, 2015 at 3:35 pm

    Rather more philosophically… Our society values entlightened individualism and, at least in Europe, social liberalism. On the other hand, from the iron cage of bureaucracy (Weber: his view is taken to a conclusion in Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World) to the banality of evil (Hannah Arendt, in Eichmann in Jerusalem, on how Nazis were capable of attrocities) we fear those who simply follow orders without thinking, and societies that encourage it. Our ideas of good and evil about humanity are displaced onto our creations – and indeed made to represent our fears.


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