Yesterday I got a phone call from a robot.
No kidding, a robot. If this had happened when I was 10, you never would’ve gotten me off the phone. I would have excitedly talked that robot, who’d innocently called our house to give my wife a programmed survey on politics or laundry soap or something, into a heuristic coma. Talk to a robot?? Are you kidding me? They would have had to pry the phone out of my tiny sweaty hands. I would’ve asked it a thousand questions about the future, and life as a robot, and if it had any friends from Jupiter, and ten million other things. Who wouldn’t want to talk to a robot, like, for hours?
My wife, as it turns out. “Those survey bots are annoying,” she said. They’ve been calling for months and she’s bored with them already.
Bored. With robots.
I have to admit that modern robots are a little, well, dull (and that goes double for the damn chatbots, especially the ones who call our house with political surveys). They’re obsolete already. No one has patience with them, because everyone’s waiting for robots to get a lot cooler. Like with laser rifles or something. My wife wouldn’t have hung up on a chatbot with a laser rifle, I can tell you that.
Why is everyone waiting for robots to be so much cooler, with awesome accessories like laser rifles? Because that’s what science fiction has conditioned us to expect. Many of the greatest characters in the most vibrant literature of the past century have been robots—and pretty damn cool robots at that—and SF fans love them dearly.
This is a serious problem for those of us who make a living creating robots and artificial intelligences. I work for a machine learning company in Chicago, and we run into this all the time. We spend millions in R&D on brand new, cutting edge products, real state-of-the-art stuff, and still. You can see it in the clients’ eyes during the demo. The disappointment. It’s fine, I guess, but when will we get a bank-monitoring A.I. with a little more personality, or maybe a laser rifle? That’s what those eyes are saying.
I don’t know any other industry that has this problem. The problem of competing with the future. Of constantly appearing to be obsolete because science fiction has gotten there decades before us, and done it better. So, so much better. You think you have it tough when your competition down the street has half-price Fridays? Frickin’ laser rifles, that what I have to compete with.
This problem is especially acute for me because the day job isn’t the only time I have to deal with robots. In June, my first novel, The Robots of Gotham, was released. It has robots in it. Like, a ton of robots. To be honest I kinda lost count of how many robots but, man. There’s a lot.
The robots in my novel don’t monitor banks. They build moon bases and rule nations, and cool stuff like that. At least in the book I was able to kit them out with decent gear, like mechanized drones and underwater lairs. (And laser rifles. Like I’d forget that.) The book has sold well, already into a second printing, which would be thrilling except that I’m pretty certain its success has more to do with America’s infatuation with robots than anything to do with me.
But if I wanted to add something meaningful to the rich history of robot literature, I knew I had to make an effort to really understand what it is that we love so much about thinking machines. I’ve spent a lot of time pondering that question. And with your indulgence, I’d like to present here a concise study in popular robotics: my list of the Greatest Science Fiction Robots of all Time.
Not the most powerful, or the purely most popular, but those that have forged an enduring relationship with readers. There are characters here from comics, movies, TV, and novels, and all of them have earned a lasting place in our hearts.
Yes, there’s a robotic villain or two, but what can I tell you? We can’t help who we love. Human are complex and contradictory creatures, even more so than machines.
Note: My definition of “robot” for this list is deliberately wide, and includes both classic robots, androids, and man-made artificial intelligences of all kinds. Spoiler Warnings for multiple novels and films ahead.
Murderbot — All Systems Red, Martha Wells (Tor.com, 2017)
Murderbot is the newcomer on this list. But just because it’s new doesn’t mean it’s a lightweight. The murderous android’s first appearance in last year’s All Systems Red, a Tor.com novella, gave Martha Wells her first Nebula Award, her first New York Times bestseller—and just won her her first Hugo Award.
Murderbot is one of the most fascinating and well-conceived fictional robots of the 21st century—and it’s definitely got one of the best backstories. An antisocial A.I. at the center of a massacre that gave it is name, Murderbot just wants to be left alone (and if I were advising you on things to leave alone, a killing machine called “Murderbot” would probably be at the top of my list). But it also wants its memories back, particularly the memories from the time it went rogue, and the killing began.
Set in a corporation-ruled spacefaring future, the four-part tale of Murderbot is one of the most acclaimed science fiction series of the past few years. It’s a fast-paced noir adventure that happens to be set in deep space, and also happens to ask deep questions on the roots of consciousness and the future of artificial intelligence. The third installment, Rogue Protocol, arrived last month, and the fourth, Exit Strategy, comes fast on its heels in October. If you want a cutting edge tale of robot mayhem, Murderbot is your ticket.
Atomic Robo — Atomic Robo, Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener (IDW Comics, 2007)
Atomic Robo is the brainchild of writer Brian Clevinger and artist Scott Wegener, and his exciting and hilarious misadventures have made him one of the greatest heroes in modern comics.
In his first adventure, he’s parachuted into the mountain lair of Nazi supervillain Baron Heinrich von Helsingard to bring him to justice. When the evil Baron hastily implants the all-powerful Vril organ into his own body and begins his ascent to godhood, hovering over the battlefield long enough to announce the organ makes him invincible, Robo says “They ought to call you ‘Baron von Brags About His Only Weakness,'” and shoots the glowy organ. Helsingard plummets to earth and Robo returns to America victorious.
There are more powerful and famous robots on this list. But if the world needed to be saved tomorrow, Atomic Robo is the one I’d most want at my side. He’s funny, self-deprecating, and supremely competent. And he has great taste in friends. I wish I could go with him on his adventures.
R. Daneel Olivaw — The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov (Doubleday, 1954)
R. Daneel Olivaw is one of the most famous robots in science fiction, and he’s certainly our finest robot detective, which has got to count for something. In his first real case he teams with human investigator Elijah Baley to solve the murder of his co-creator Dr. Sarton. To complicate matters further, Olivaw is the first humanoid robot ever constructed, and in fact looks identical to the dead Sarton. Which is the kind of thing that has to mess you up, even if you’re a robot.
Still, being able to move undercover among humans turns out to be pretty darn useful, especially in a society prejudiced against robots. Olivaw and Baley prove to be an effective crime-solving duo, and their adventures (separately and together) continued for decades in Asimov’s classic Robot and Foundation novels, most notably The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, The Robots of Dawn, Robots and Empire, Prelude to Foundation, and others.
Olivaw has another impressive accomplishment—the dude lives a long, long time, even for a robot. He’s built on Earth in the year 5020 A.D, and lives the entire millennia-long span of the First Empire, the famous Second Empire designed by the Second Foundation, and even survives until the formation of the group consciousnesses Galaxia. I don’t really know how long that is, but trust me, when suns wind down before you do, you’ve got one heck of a warranty.
R2-D2 — Star Wars, directed by George Lucas (20th Century Fox, 1977)
R2-D2 is one of the most famous robots of all time, full stop. He is funny, charming, universally loved, and about as iconic as a 3-foot machine can possibly get. Which, let’s face it, is an astonishing accomplishment for a character that hasn’t had a single comprehensible line in his entire film career.
In fact, the love we feel for R2-D2 informs us more about the human capacity for robot affinity than any other character on this list. It’s easy to love a machine like Astro Boy or R. Daneel Olivaw, because they look so human. It’s easy to forget they’re robots, and in fact, other than a few mechanical affectations, narratively speaking most of the time they are essentially human.
But when you look like a trash compactor with wheels, lazy writing doesn’t work to your advantage. And when you communicate exclusively with chirps and whistles, it’s very difficult to really connect with an audience. Which makes the love we feel for R2-D2 something of a revelation. Why do we love him so? Why does he connect with us in a way that the fussy and fastidious C-3PO does not? Because R2-D2 is brave, loyal, and true to his friends. And it seems humans value that those qualities above almost all others.
Terminator — The Terminator, directed by James Cameron (Orion Pictures, 1984)
Oh, come on. You knew the Terminator was on this list somewhere. James Cameron’s classic robotic creation, the unstoppable T-800, has been supplanted by more up-to-date models versions in the sequels, but it has never been replaced in our hearts. Mostly because those ones weren’t played by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Schwarzenegger brought both gravity and sly humor to the Terminator, arguably his greatest role. In the 1984 original he was a chilling, implacable monster; in the 1991 sequel T2 he became mankind’s greatest defender. All it took was a tweak to his programming.
Maybe that’s another reason we love robots so much. Because they remind us that the tools at our disposal, no matter how powerful and horrible, are no more than the reflections of our own aspirations.
Wall-E — Wall-E, directed by Andrew Stanton (Pixar, 2008)
I had a passionate defense for Wall-E’s placement on this list, ahead of his more famous robotic counterparts like R2-D2 and the Terminator. But you know what? The heck with it. Wall-E is one of the greatest film protagonists of all time, robotic or otherwise, and his ranking on this list should be self-evident. Take that, Wall-E haters.
What’s so great about Wall-E? After all, he’s not nearly as competent as Atomic Robo—not even close!—nor as brave as R2-D2, or as cool at the Terminator. In fact, he’s pretty much a sad sack little trash compactor of a robot, stuck with the unglamorous job of cleaning up the massive mess we made of our home planet while humanity tools around in the stars.
Wall-E wins our hearts through his tenderness, and his naked humanity. Wall-E has hopes and dreams and strange little aspirations, and the capacity to bring that hope to others. It’s a rare gift for anyone, human or otherwise. Wall-E won a Hugo and Nebula Award, as well as an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, and topped Time‘s list of “Best Movies of the Decade.” Hope is a powerful thing, and it beats laser rifles. Every time.
HAL 9000 — 2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1968)
If you wanna talk famous robots, you can’t get much more iconic than HAL, the creation of director Stanley Kubrick and SF author Arthur C. Clarke.
HAL is one of the scariest and most omniscient villains ever created for a science fiction film—or any film, for that matter. And he accomplishes all his sophisticated villainy while totally lacking things most robots take for granted. Like arms and legs, or even a head. Or a laser rifle. For most of the film he’s just a big red eye and a slow, thoughtful voice. That’s some serious villain chops.
What makes HAL so great in 2001: A Space Odyssey is that he’s a dark enigma. A brand new form of elevated intelligence, tasked with controlling operations of the Discovery One spacecraft, HAL is both supremely competent and inscrutable. Why does he go crazy and murder his fellow crew members? What dark thoughts does he have behind that glowing eye, and how long has he been thinking them? No one knows (*shudder*).
Okay, that’s not true. In later films and books in the series (primarily 2010: Odyssey Two), Clarke answers some of those questions by explaining HAL’s psychosis was the result of being programmed to report all information “without distortion or concealment,” while simultaneously being instructed to keep the existence of the Monolith on the moon a secret. A quick reboot, and HAL’s back to normal. And that’s okay. It robs 2001 of some of its mystery, but it also makes HAL lovable again. Like Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, who returns as mankind’s defender, HAL’s rehabilitation is part of his mystique, and his epic journey. If robots are going to take their rightful place at our side in coming generations, don’t they need a path to redemption, too?
Lt. Commander Data — Star Trek: The Next Generation (Paramount Television, 1987)
With Lieutenant Commander Data, the creation of Gene Roddenberry and D. C. Fontana, robots finally leveled up.
It’s not like robots weren’t members of spaceship crews before Star Trek: The Next Generation, as Marvin the Paranoid Android would (unhappily) attest. But they were mostly one-note characters, played for laughs, or whose primary function was to loudly inform Will Robinson of danger. They certainly didn’t get top billing. The hyper-anxious robot from Lost in Space didn’t even have a name, for cryin’ out loud. It was just called “Robot.”
But Data is a fully realized character with a long and satisfying story arc, with plenty of twists and drama. He’s forced to go on trial to prove he’s sentient and not merely Starfleet property (in “The Measure of a Man”); he finds—and loses—his family, in the form of his father/creator and an estranged brother, Lore (“Brothers”); he’s given a chip that enables him to feel emotion; and he proves to be the critical player in the defining battle against the cybernetic Borg (in Star Trek: First Contact).
Data is the first truly well-rounded robotic character in American cinema. Masterfully portrayed by actor Brent Spiner, Data is a one-of-a-kind creation. A robot capable of curiously, loyalty, friendship, courage, and all the things that make a character appealing, and yet clearly, recognizably a machine, Data isn’t merely a highly valued member of the finest crew in Starfleet. He is a landmark in robot fiction; a character for whom being a robot is only one aspect of his fascinating and appealing personality.
Robby the Robot — Forbidden Planet (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1956)
Although R. Daneel Olivaw appeared in print two years before Robby the Robot strode out across the alien landscape of Altair IV in Forbidden Planet, Robby was far more influential, in more ways than one. In fact, Robby the Robot is clearly the greatest robot of the mid-20th century. He was the first robot who was very clearly a machine, and yet simultaneously gifted with a unique and appealing personality.
He’s also a technological marvel, especially for 1956.
In fact, he was so innovative that American cinema refused to let him die, and he made appearances (without explanation) in numerous subsequent movies and TV shows, including The Invisible Boy (1957), The Thin Man, The Twilight Zone, The Addams Family, and Lost in Space, and even Columbo (yes, Columbo).
Big, lumbering, and loud, Robby the Robot belongs to the Golden Age of Science Fiction, and in fact for decades he was the de facto poster child for science fiction, appearing on countless book and magazine covers. He still has fans today, and you can count me among them.
The Iron Giant — The Iron Giant, directed by Brad Bird (Warner Bros., 1999)
The 1999 Warner Bros. film The Iron Giant launched the career of Brad Bird, one of the most successful and influential directors of the 21st century (The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol). In the nearly two decades since the release of the film, the Iron Giant has become a true icon of American cinema, and one of the most instantly-recognizable robots ever created. Like all icons, his image pops up everywhere, most recently in the 2018 Steven Spielberg hit film Ready Player One, where he squares off against Mechagodzilla. Because he’s a badass.
It’s interesting to compare The Iron Giant against others on this list, like Lt. Commander Data and R2-D2. Like R2-D2, the Iron Giant cannot speak, but wins our enduring affection because he is loyal and true to his friends.
But the reason that the Iron Giant tops this list, the reason that I believe he is the greatest science fiction robot ever created, is because of the essential difference between the Iron Giant and Data & R2-D2: The Iron Giant can love. It’s that love, and his unhesitating willingness to sacrifice himself for his young friend Hogarth, that allows the Iron Giant to do something that so few of his compatriots on this list have: transcend his limitations.
The Iron Giant is a machine, made of metal and wires. But in the closing minutes of The Iron Giant he becomes something far more: a hero for the ages, and an inspiration. Not just for other machines. But for us as well.
- Rossum’s Universal Robots (RUR, Karel Capek)
- Maschinenmensch (Metropolis)
- Humanoids (The Humanoids, Jack Williamson)
- Gyro Gearloose’s Little Helper (Uncle Scrooge comics)
- The Runaway Robot (The Runaway Robot, Lester Del Rey)
- The Robot (Lost in Space)
- Ultron (The Avengers)
- Bolos (Bolo, Keith Laumer)
- Doombots (Fantastic Four)
- Astro Boy
- The Bicentennial Man (“The Bicentennial Man,” Isaac Asimov)
- KITT (Knight Rider)
- Marvin the Paranoid Android (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)
- Bishop (Aliens)
- Roy Batty & Pris (Blade Runner)
- Bender B. Rodriguez (Futurama)
- Optimus Prime (Transformers)
- Baymax (Big Hero 6)
- Maeve Millay (Westworld)
I can’t close out this list without saying a few words about some choice runners up.
Karel Capek started this whole thing off by introducing the word “robot” in his 1920 Czech play R.U.R. Before Robby the Robot became the poster child for mechanical men, that honor belonged to the alluring Maschinenmensch from Metropolis—by no means the only gendered robot on this list, but the only female gendered robot, which I think tells us a lot about how we view machines.
(In fact, that’s a topic that deserves a lot more discussion. Does it make sense for us to gender a machine with no reproduction organs or sexual identity? Hell no. So why the heck do we keep doing it? Why are so many sexless machines—from Robby the Robot to C3P0 to Optimus Prime—clearly, recognizably male? You can blame sexism or lazy writing if you like, and you probably wouldn’t be wrong, but I think that kinda misses the point. In truth I’m fascinated with the idea of gendered robots; I just think the whole concept has been grossly underdeveloped. If you’re going to make your machines recognizably male, why not go all the way? Why not give them a sexual identity? Sexual reproduction among animals has enormous evolutionary advantages; wouldn’t hyper-intelligent machines desire those same advantages? Two of my favorite characters in The Robots of Gotham are female machines, and it’s not because I wanted to give them curves and a sexy voice. I wanted to explore the fascinating idea—which so many, many fine writers have flirted with, from Lester del Rey’s Helen O’Loy, to Philip K. Dick’s Roy Batty and Pris in Blade Runner—of a gendered machine society. What would such a thing look like? What would it mean to switch genders with a simple change in programming? What would society look like if a gender fluid identity was the norm? But these are all topics for a wider discussion.)
During the Golden Age of SF writers like Jack Williamson, Lester del Rey, and especially Isaac Asimov did a lot to elevate robots from curiosities to full-fledged characters, with books like The Humanoids, The Runaway Robot, and I, Robot. Asimov returned to the theme throughout his career, in groundbreaking tales like his Hugo-award winning “The Bicentennial Man” from 1976.
Robots have played their part in comics in well, from the indestructible Astro Boy to Gyro Gearloose’s Little Helper, a tiny robot with a light bulb for a head. They’ve made especially great villains, including Dr. Doom’s loyal doombots, and the relentless Ultron.
Movies and TV have given us some of the most memorable robots of the past 80 years, including KITT from Knight Rider, Bishop from Aliens, Ulton (Avengers 2), Maeve and Dolores (Westworld), and of course Bender B. Rodriguez (Futurama), who just missed making the list.
I know I’ve missed more than a few. If you’ve got a favorite robot, give a shout out in the comments. Be sure to tell us what makes them so memorable.
Finally, I don’t claim to have any special knowledge about robots or machine intelligence. Nothing beyond a general certainty that robots and machine intelligences will become a growing part of our lives over the next years and decades. And just as science fiction helped pave the way for atomic power and space travel, today it is busily preparing the way for the coming of the machines.
Will they be friend or foe? I don’t think it takes any special insight to say with surety that they will be both. They will change the world, that’s for certain.
That’s their job.
Todd McAulty is the author of The Robots of Gotham, a novel of a near-future Chicago occupied by machines, and a small group of humans and robots who band together to resist… and who stumble on a secret America’s machine invaders are desperate to keep hidden. It was released by in hardcover by John Joseph Adams Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on June 19.