Science in Science-Fiction: Robots, Androids and Gynoids, Oh My!

Posted on Friday, November 20th, 2015 at 09:17

Time for another Science in Science-Fiction post I think… Let’s see what is this one about? Well, they are mechanical people, their history goes back thousands of years, but they were really made famous when a Czech writer called Karel ?apek wrote an interesting play called R.U.R (or Rossumovi univerzální roboti, or perhaps Rossum’s Universal Robots). That’s right, I’m talking about Robots. Settle in — this is going to be a long one.


According to the wiki:

Scene from R.U.R.

They certainly don’t look like robots.

Karel ?apek introduced the world to the word Robot, but he named his brother, painter and writer Josef ?apek, as its actual inventor. In an article in the Czech journal Lidové noviny in 1933, he also explained that he had originally wanted to call the creatures labori (from Latin labor, work). However, he did not like the word, seeing it as too artificial, and sought advice from his brother Josef, who suggested roboti (robots in English).

The word robot comes from the word robota. The word robota means literally “corvée”, “serf labor”, and figuratively “drudgery” or “hard work” in Czech and also (more general) “work”, “labor” in Slovak, archaic Czech, and many other Slavic languages (e.g.: Bulgarian, Russian, Serbian, Polish, Macedonian, Ukrainian, etc.), from the reconstructed Proto-Slavic word *orbota, meaning “(slave) work”. This is cognate with the reconstructed Proto-Germanic word *arbaidiz for “(slave) work”, compare its descendant in German, Arbeit. – Wikipedia entry for Karel ?apek

That’s right, robot pretty much just means slave. In fact, in the play the Robots in question are actually not machines, but rather synthetic people, closer to what we would call a Clone, or Genetic Engineered Life Form (GELF) than what the word came to mean. But before there were robots we already had the concept of the mechanical men.


Talos shaking his head, from Jason and the Argonauts

Talos did you really exist?

The Greeks built automata, not just machines that moved by themselves in the form of automatic doors on temples and even automated puppet theatres, but in the forms of science-fiction through their mythology. The bronze man, Talos, is an excellent mythological example. Forged by Hephaestus (or possibly Daedalus) at the request of Zeus (or possibly King Minos) to guard his lover Europa (or Crete itself), Talos was a living statue that patrolled around the island of Crete, three times each day, protecting it from invaders from the sea, until the nail on his heel was removed (possibly by Medea persuading him that immortality lay that way), and his life blood poured free like molten lead. There’s even been some speculation that Talos may have been some relic Bronze robot or statue left over from Atlantean/Minoan civilisation that has become subsumed into Greek Mythology, or possibly some symbol of the lost-wax casting process. Talos is not the only automata recorded in ancient times, King Solomon is said to have had constructed a Throne adorned with mechanical animals that assisted his climb and crowned him when he was seated, before handing him a Torah. In the far East, the probably mythological Yan Shi, who was an artificer and mechanical engineer, created and presented to the Emperor a mechanical man, constructed from bamboo, lacquered wood, leather and rope, as well as mechanical wooden birds that could fly.

Bubo the mechanical owl from Clash of the Titans

Although not like this…

The real automata of the time, were actually no less impressive, with records of early pneumatics creating moving and speaking statues in Greek temples and those wooden birds, well they may have actually existed too. There’s some pretty good evidence that the first kites the Chinese flew were bird shaped and carved from wood, to exactly match the shapes of a bird’s wing and body, which meant that it provided lift the same way as a real bird’s form. These early kites were later replaced by lighter, simpler, shapes constructed from paper, or silk, and bamboo, that could fly more easily. But that’s really a distraction from the mechanical science.

Dark and Middle-Ages

During the Dark ages there were still many Automata created, but where the centre of their previous construction had been the Greek cities and a few Roman examples, after the fall of Rome, Constantinople became not just the capital of the Roman Empire, but also of Automata production. In my mosaic novel “Ironmaster & Other Tales” this expertise continued on until the Ottoman Empire constructed great thinking machines, and mobile automata, that are known as Mechanimals. An idea from history, as the Emperor at Constantinople is said to have had mechanical Lions and Peacocks that paraded in the throne room. Further East, the Muslims constructed delicate automata in the forms of birds and automatic musicians, there are even tales of automatic servants that assisted in washing hands with a siphon system measuring when to hand soap over, or a towel.

The Age of Light

During the renaissance the great minds of the day turned their hands to mechanics, Leonardo Di Vinci is said to have designed a mechanical man, that could move it’s limbs, and even sit itself up.  With the invention of clockwork, a number of mechanical toys and animals were constructed, and many believed that since these devices were so perfect that flesh and blood animals were nothing more than a refined biological version of these mechanisms. The idea of a mechanical mind did not seem impossible when the Chess playing puppet ‘The Turk’ was constructed. As we progressed, so too did the skill and knowledge of these toymakers, to the point that many of the great machines created in the industrial revolution were actually nothing more than large scale reproductions of the solutions created in the automata toys that entertained the nobility across Europe. The fantastical stories that include automata before the twentieth century usually fall into one of two patterns, either the machine is simply a symbol of how clever its creator is, or they are the source of the creator’s doom. The number of early automata stories where the device runs amok and slays it’s creator, is far greater than the former. Which is a pretty good sign that readers can be a blood thirsty lot, regardless of the century. 


The android Logo

No, not that sort of Android!

It seems a bit odd, with the perspective of history that the word ‘Android’ was created before the word robot. Since these days the word means a robot that looks like a human being. However, the word actually means “male/man”-shaped. It was first used to describe automata toys that were humanoid, these toys were often masculine in nature, being toy-soldiers or horsemen. In stories Androids were often drudge workers, and became a useful tool for discussing the issues of slavery, and, of course, racism without inflaming unrest during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. A metal slave was an easy substitute for poorly paid prole workers (or medieval serfs/ plantation slaves) letting writers explore the ethics of slavery, race, and even armed revolution, without treading on too many politically sensitive toes. Androids that are used as slaves, invariably turn on their masters, refusing to work, or even striking their masters down. The strength, efficiency and tirelessness of the machines was noted long before any of the Terminator movies, as well as their desire to kill. It’s not true that all the robots around this time were rising up to throw of the shackles of humanity. There are stories written in the interwar years where robots take on more middle-class roles. Robot surgeons, clerks, and even football players, began to appear in a plethora of robot stories (usually with the robot having a humanoid appearance).

The comic relief from Starwars

Dusty Bin and Maria from Metropolis… Plot devices or synthetic Laurel and Hardy? You decide.

The Star Wars franchise uses a diminutive form of Android for its often wildly inhuman robots. George Lucas claims to have invented the word Droid for his universe, he even trademarked it. The Droids of the Star Wars franchise are truly repressed, slave analogs. They are owned, built, programmed, have their memories wiped, can be tortured and can be controlled by the use of a restraining bolt which when combined with a microphone like device seems to bypass the Droid’s mind, and control their body directly. And yet despite this obvious analogy, there is not a sign of any Droid Rights campaign. The Jedi, who ordinarily are meant to be upholders of justice for all sentient life, seem to turn a blind eye to Droid issues, perhaps because without them they wouldn’t be able to calculate a jump through hyperspace in their teeny fighters, but then we are talking about the upholders of Justice that commanded a slave Clone army to fight a slave Droid army so maybe it’s hard to fit in ethics classes between all the light-sabre and rock lifting practice. Anyway, the word Android can be used to describe any artificial human, which means that reanimated corpses, animated statues, golems and robots can all be described with it, but in modern times the word is used to describe any (even roughly) humanoid robots, even those that are designed to look like females, although technically the appropriate term for them is Gynoid, which I will get to later.

The Laws of Robotics

The Laws of robotics were the creation of Isaac Asimov and are regarded by many as an actual goal in artificial intelligence. Asimov created the rules for his “Robot” short stories (which were collected later in “I, Robot” amongst others.image Usually described as the Three Laws of Robotics there are actually four of them (at least by the end of the series).

  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 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.

and the so-called Zeroth law that overrides the previous (hence the 0): A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

Other writers that followed thought of other laws that robots should follow:

  • Lyuben Dilov added a 4th Law: A robot must establish its identity as a robot in all cases.
  • Nikola Kesarovski added a 5th: A robot must know it is a robot.
  • Harry Harrison created a different 4th Law: A robot must reproduce. As long as such reproduction does not interfere with the First or Second or Third Law.
  • Hutan Ashrafian, wrote a 6th law: All robots endowed with comparable human reason and conscience should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Of course, Asimov’s own rules are the more generally accepted, and went a long way towards turning the homicidal Frankenstein machines of early science-fiction into something that people believed could be useful to the future of humanity. Modern industrial robots may not have the rules embedded in their systems, but people are more willing to believe that they will follow their programming and not rampage around a factory killing people, partly because of this unconscious change in attitude to robots that Asimov brought about. After his stories space colonies were almost expected to have robot doctors, actors, gardeners, engineers and repairmen. In some later tales, we see subtle repeats of the class-war themes reappearing in stories where humans that want to perform these jobs are looked down upon, for not being as efficient, safe or clever as the robot equivalent, not just by the upper-class humanity, but by the middle-class robots themselves.


I touched on this earlier. Female human-form robots are not Androids, but Gynoids. They have existed almost as long as Androids have, and in fiction they have fairly settled roles. As Androids and Robots in general have stood in for class war, racism, slavery, and revolution, the gynoid is an unusually direct symbol for women themselves. Gynoid fiction is often concerned exclusively with the position of women in society, whether that symbol is wielded by misogynists, misandrists, or feminist writers. Gynoids are often depicted as “sex-bots” (and certainly there will be gynoid sex-bots, as well as android), but the stories are usually more about a quest for a perfect woman. The exact definition of this perfection does depend on the story, but essentially in it’s original form it is the story of ‘Pygmalion‘, where a sculptor falls in love with his creation, and Aphrodite/Venus grants the statue life. Variations on this tale can be seen in the novel The Stepford Wives and the film Weird Science, where differing ideas of female perfection are examined, the first has powerful, professional women, seemingly replaced by gynoids that are submissive to men, and favour traditional gender roles.

Scene from weird science where the hero teens where bras on their head before summoning Lisa.

The second has a more complex relationship with feminism.

There is an interesting subversion of this in the form of Charles Stross’ “Saturn’s Children“. Set in the distant future after mankind has long since become extinct it follows the adventures of a Gynoid called Freya Nakamichi-47. Freya was designed as a Sexbot, but since humans and specifically males are extinct she is effectively an obsolete item. This, combined with her humanoid design, makes her a second class citizen in a solar system populated by a Chibi-shaped robot nobility. Stross himself has stated that the novel is a tribute to Robert Heinlein, specifically his novel “Friday“, which features a genetically engineered artificial human female, who could also be described as a Gynoid. Freya even uses the name Friday Baldwin as an identity in Stross’ tale, and of course Friday is Freya’s day…

Transformation scene from Metropolis

The robot (or Mechanical Human technically) becomes a Gynoid or female Android…

I find it interesting that the very first use of a true “robotic” Gynoid that I can find in fiction is not a quest for the perfect woman, a study in feminism, or an attempt to build a kick-ass female lead. It is appropriately enough, from the very first science-fiction feature film “Metropolis“. In the story the Gynoid in question is intended to replace the inventor’s dead wife, but this is subverted by the plot where she is repurposed by the master of Metropolis, used to mimic and discredit the worker Maria, because his son has fallen in love with her. However, the inventor turns the tables once more, and uses the Gynoid Maria to cause a workers revolt, and flooding of the city. In the end the workers burn the gynoid, in revenge for their children they believe drowned. It’s a complex plot and twice veers from the Quest for the perfect woman into far deeper waters.

Terminators (or Weaponized Drones)

The military wants robot’s to be able to kill. It makes a lot of sense, just think about the number of soldiers killed and maimed in battle every year. To anyone elected by those soldiers families, and neighbours, it makes sense to not risk the soldiers lives needlessly. Some countries do this by not going to war every few years, others pick robots. America and the UK have got quite into the idea of killbots. After reconaissance drones proved their usefulness in warfare, some bright spark thought strapping a couple of Hellfire missiles to one would be a good idea, and really we have never looked back. Of course, at the moment most of our weaponised drones are really little more than sophisticated remote control planes. A pilot sits at a control system and makes the decision when to fire, and at what, mostly, but there are rumours of completely autonomous drones, but I doubt they are able to select their own targets, yet. In fact, the Geneva convention pretty much says that a human has to check that the area is free of civilians before a weapon is fired, which so far drones are terrible at. image There are a lot of weaponised drones on the way, not all of them as big or as bad as the Predator (with its tank and bunker busting capabilities). On the way are mini-helicopters with sniper rifles, tracked (and wheeled) weapons platforms, self-driving lorries for carrying supplies, and drones designed to follow individual units carrying extra ammunition, such as the uncanny valley’s own hound-like “Big-Dog”. The Terminator franchise is, of course, the obvious sci-fi relative of these projects. The T-800 Model 101 represents the height of sophisticated drone technology, as flexible as a human being, as unstoppable as a tank. In the less than stellar Terminator 3, when John Connor gets a good look in the military base (that has taken over development of Terminator and Skynet technologies after Cyberdyne got all blown up in T2) we see a lot of very weaponised drones.image While we don’t yet have these kinds of robots, they do seem to be just around the corner. Quadcopter drones are cheap enough for Christmas presents now and are only going to get smarter. All of which leads me to say that Robots, whatever you want to call them, are probably get more complex in the future…