The Robotic Renaissance: Existential Dread and the Story of How Johnny Five Came Alive

short_circuit_3Art is an interesting thing. It’s created both for and by the viewer. It can reveal ideas, truths, realities, and desires while wielding the power to create them (Mitchell pg.68). Our art reflects and informs our thoughts, actions and discourse. Today, “the work of art may thus come to be the task of exploring and defining the dimensions of a technology appropriate to human self-understanding” and the ways in which we express ourselves regarding our humanity (Arike pg.451). Thinking about the machine as an art-form, Sally Pryor points out correctly that “machinery has [served] as a metaphor of the self in a way that is largely subconscious (pg.586).” We often fail to notice how deeply the robotic works to reveal the inner workings of humanity. The parallels between the image and likeness of the robotic and its creator, while perhaps not always intentional, are none-the-less truly revelatory. With technology growing nearer and nearer to the moment when machines not only “think” but begin to replicate emotion in a way that is nearly indistinguishable from our own, our fears and desires come into focus.

One of the most common ways we deal with these fears and desires is through the creation and consumption of images. What’s most interesting about images is not what they show, but what they show us about ourselves. Images reflect the nature not just of their creator, but also their viewers while simultaneously motivating the viewer to new action. Examining the images that become well circulated, frequently seen, consumed, popularized, and thrust upon the public sphere grants insight to the mindset and motivations of a particularly consumptive population. So, popular images like motion pictures can speak volumes about how we deal with certain subjects and cause us to re-evaluate or evolve as we gaze and reflect. To better understand how images reveal important facets of the human/machine relationship and the way in which they work to shape new desires and feelings in relation to machines, I propose an examination of robots as presented in popular family film. For this work, I will address the films Short Circuit (1986) and Wall-E (2008) to demonstrate the evolving desire of humankind for machines that are more human-like by exploring their characterizations, what those films may reveal about this desire, and how they shape new demands for robots in the physical world.

Short Circuit is the story of a robot named Number 5 who was created as part of an experimental development project intended to create perfect soldiers; a story line that in no way sounds exactly like almost every other robot film of the 1980’s. Using tank tread mobility and lasers that, oddly enough, sound strikingly similar to the proton packs utilized by the Ghostbusters, these robots carry out demonstrations of destruction for the big wigs of weapon manufacturing to gaze upon in awe. Long story short, like every other good sci-fi film, lightning strikes somewhere it shouldn’t and Number 5 short circuits (insert obvious allusion to the film’s title here.) Number 5 then proceeds to run amok and find friends to help him escape the clutches of the evil company that wants to dis-assemble him for study and reclaim what is rightfully corporate property. But Number 5, by way of demonstrating his being alive throughout the film, warms our hearts and makes us cheer on Ally Sheedy and Steve Guttenburg as they fight the man and find love in the middle of struggle and after a hilarious misunderstanding in which the female tells the male lead that she “thought he was different.”

So, how does Number 5 attempt to claim person-hood? First, the notion that reason and the ability to learn makes a being uniquely alive is reinforced heavily. One key scene in Short Circuit that portrays this notion superbly involves Number 5 insisting to Stephanie that she “re-assemble” the bug he just squashed. He claims innocently that he “disassembled” the bug. She explains that she can’t because the bug is dead and “I know you don’t understand, but when you’re dead, you’re dead. It’s just the way it is. Dead is forever.” Number 5, putting the logic together, combines the concept of dis-assembly with death and “learns” his imminent dis-assembly must mean death because he is now alive precisely because of this newly demonstrated ability to reason. And, following the circle, as W.J.T. Mitchell states, “ a living thing is something that can die (pg. 52).” This leads to the hilarity of Number 5’s ranting “NO DIS-ASSEMBLE!” and the stealing of Stephanie’s service truck as he runs away like many children tend to when you tell them the truth about Santa.

The second method employed is personification through humor. Though Number 5 does not necessarily feel the emotions that accompany humor, he does act in ways that make us laugh repeatedly. His behavior as a quirky newly self-aware being makes us laugh the way we do at babies learning to walk. The babies may laugh with us, but they have no idea how truly insensitive we are being toward their failed attempts to develop survival skills. Even though Number 5 may rewire his counterparts to act like the Three Stooges rather than hunt him down, he is still learning what humor means. But this does not change the affect that the images of his frivolity have on our belief in his claim to life. So when he decides in the end of the film to declare “Number 5 stupid name” and takes the name Johnny 5 instead, the audience finalizes their definition of the robot present in the images as a distinct and unique being.

Wall-E, the story of a Hello, Dolly! loving robot that looks almost identical to Johnny 5 but without a voice patterning piece of hardware that can say more than “Eve,” follows a machine programmed to clean up the planet’s surface so humans can continue to dump their trash without having to do anything themselves. The robot spends every day on the surface of a planet long since deserted by humankind cleaning up the trash and storing it in convenient cubes. It is glaringly obvious that the trash is piled so high that he will not achieve his goal before his gears give out but he tries his damned-est bless his mechanical heart. What happens to Wall-E next takes him on an adventure to save the robot he loves, rescue humans from an artificial intelligence auto-pilot that wants to take over, and ultimately teach the human race how to live again.

It is interesting to note that in Wall-E, the robot has already achieved an advanced set of reasoning and logic that allows it to adapt to the dead environment of the abandoned planet that it diligently seeks to clean up each day. In the Pixar film, Wall-E is given no claims to life for the very things that made Johnny 5 “come alive.” Instead, Wall-E demonstrates life by showing his ability to feel (i.e. nurturing a plant, having a pet cockroach, caring for another robot’s well being, saving the day for the portly, hovercraft bound humans, and teaching humankind to feel once again.) Wall-E demonstrates a distinctly different claim to life than Number 5. While Johnny 5 is aided by his human companions in the consumption of input and its applications, Wall-E inverts this role entirely. Wall-E teaches the humans to nurture new plant life, leads them to the land of organic based living they had long forgotten, and literally causes humanity to walk upright once more in an act of born-again evolution, a truly robotic renaissance.

In the end, what stirs the viewer most is Wall-E’s loss of emotion from having been reset after being rebuilt. When Eve, the lug-nut of his mechanical eye, tries desperately to get him to remember her, he continually reacts to the objects offered as emotional memory triggers as if they were just more trash to be sorted. The loss or absence felt in these moments and the ensuing elation caused by his squeezing of her claw arm shows that the personification of Wall-E is made complete only by his regaining emotion and emotional memory. In Wall-E, what makes a being truly alive is their ability to feel not just for another similar being, but quite importantly, objects that trigger sentimental responses. What this says about our new relationship with the robotic would take volumes to deconstruct.

It is important to note that robots created to be what Johnny 5 and Wall-E were intended by their in-film creators to be already exist. According to OSHA (Occupation Safety and Health Administration), part of the U.S. Department of Labor,

Robots are machines that load and unload stock, assemble parts, transfer objects, or perform other tasks. Robots are used for replacing humans who were performing unsafe, hazardous, highly repetitive, and unpleasant tasks. They are utilized to accomplish many different types of application functions such as material handling, assembly, arc welding, resistance welding, machine tool load/unload functions, painting/spraying, etc. (”

Machines like these have been steadily replacing human workforces for years. More and more, these machines require fewer operators to simulate and transcend human labor. Companies like the eerily named iRobot offer tools like the Roomba that vacuum our floors, the Verro that cleans pools, and the Looj which takes care of those pesky gutters all without the direct intercession of a human during the process just like Wall-E was intended to do ( Extending their reach to the arms race like the creators of Johnny 5, iRobot says on their official internet home that,

More than 4,000 [robots] have been delivered to military and civil defense forces worldwide… iRobot has developed the SUGV (Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle), a robot for dismounted mobile operations and infantry missions… iRobot’s line of government and industrial robots also includes… a small, light, throwable robot for special operations… a surveillance robot for public safety professionals… a large robot that carries heavy payloads…and iRobot’s Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs), perform a variety of missions for maritime researchers and military planners (”

Replacing humans in these military situations is seen as both humanitarian and tactically more effective. But what is clear is the robot is meant to aide or take over human physical and mental functions we don’t care to do ourselves and those we appear no longer fit to perform. Our struggle with the consequences of these replacements is highlighted and explored throughout both films as the characters and audience must wrestle with what constitutes human life. If we are no more than components, we must either assign life to the machines or re-evaluate the uniqueness and value of our own.

As creators of this technology, we

need to be aware that computers are not a neutral tool, that they arise from and embody the values of a cultural and philosophical context…not only do we make computers and then explain ourselves in terms of the new technology, but we also see ourselves in a certain way and create new technology in that image (Pryor pg.589).”

Like a physical effigy, the robotic is given image and likeness by a human creator seeking to imitate or recreate life in a given form. This effigy is often interacted with as if it did have a unique being or was the very being specifically imitated through its construction. The “robotic body meets our physicality with its own…[as its] gaze, face, and voice allow us to imagine a meeting of the minds (Turkle pg.129).” The robotic demands meaning for its existence. It insists upon itself. It must be important and unique and a special little snowflake. Does this sound familiar? It should. Those are the very same existential demands we often place on ourselves. Such questions are at the heart of the human condition and the experience of knowing that one is alive and will one day die. Our actions toward the robotic show the existence of an unrecognized echo as “we invent and make up the person with whom we associate – and immediately forget it (Nietzsche 88).”

These films speak to our existential desires and struggles because they reflect situations that involve them and because the films instigate them. Film, in this way, works as a mirror that simultaneously shows the viewer their own image staring back while also providing its specific instance. Film creates a timeless present moment that acts as the specific site of reflection and instance of the act concurrently. Not only do images represent, they also “introduce new forms of value into the world, contesting our criteria, forcing us to change our minds (Mitchell pg.92).” And it is this dichotomy that reveals the most about our existential struggle with and through the robotic.

Knowing that one exists, and will at some point not exist, raises questions about meaning and mortality and decay and all the wonderful things we don’t really understand completely. Ronald Grimsley notes, referencing the work of Heidegger, that dread, stems from the reality that “man, as a personal existent, has the unique characteristic of being able to interrogate himself concerning the meaning of his own being (Grimsley 248).” It is this state that allows one to confront the very real fact that they will, at some point, cease to live. The situational fears that may seem to be the cause of the dilemma are actually symptoms of an all encompassing state of dread which transcends the moment of fear. In this way, it is an “experience of Being” (Grimsley 250) which is lived in more than felt. Sartre asserts that dread can only appear when a human begins to question the whole of their existence. As a whole, humanity’s existence as a finite creature references in perpetuity its inescapable role as a “being-for-death”, one that MUST die as a matter of existential fact (Grimsley.) This unavoidable ending drives the dread experience of the human condition.

It is my belief this certainty of the moment of death is what lies at the heart of our struggle with the robotic and the way we handle its creation and representation in artistic and physical forms. The demand for thinking and learning as evidence of life became secondary when real-world machines began to beat chess masters and video games started to recognize skill levels and adapt difficulty settings to their players. Thinking isn’t enough anymore. Not because it is insufficient in actuality, but because it proves that our ability to perform such acts as machines now mimic is not mystical, special, or unique any longer if it ever was. In fact, machines are capable of out-thinking us by a wide margin. And they are becoming increasingly better at learning and adapting to environments without human intercession. What robots still can’t quite grasp is that elusive bodily experience called emotion. Emotion isn’t really understood by us quite yet, though we are coming closer than ever before as science continues to study the brain and how it functions. So naturally, we’ve moved on from Johnny 5. We want Wall-E because he is a mysterious and emotional being like us. His story is the story of humanity.

We don’t feel like we do much that humanizes us anymore. Our functions are being replaced by machines who we now deny as having any true life. But in that negation, we negate the very parts of us we put into the machine, the image and likeness of their creator. The very act of negating the person-hood of these machines negates the claim we make for ourselves. Naturally, we must move on to the emotional components of our being as unique factors to create a distinction. Otherwise, we are no more than a set of functions and patterns as Kurzweil suggests when he says “[humans are] principally a pattern that persists in time (pg.386).”

The heart of the issue is dread can come with self awareness. Knowing we are alive creates a crisis when we also become aware we will, without fail, die and the potentially eternal existence of the robotic life terrifies us. And we don’t yet have a solid picture of why we can self examine in this way. “Though we live inside this marvelous machine” we are still at a loss as to where the “transition from a vast field of fast switches” crosses over and into a being that “knows itself (Benford &Malartre pg.81).” If this comes to be discovered, then perhaps it can be rewired, or even reverse engineered. And that is the worry of the self knowing being. It’s the worry that we work through in our funny robot films. If we can be reducible to parts, are we more than their sum?

Johnny 5 and Wall-E, in their characterizations, show us we are still struggling mightily with the quest to find meaning in our lives. Yes, we are making a demand on machines that they start feeling in addition to learning and thinking if they want to climb aboard the life boat. But more importantly, we are using film to work through our concerns that we are becoming less human and to move the viewers to believe we are indeed more alive because of our unique traits that robots can only claim in fiction. And the films serve as reminders and statements on our evolving beliefs that inform the audience regarding the things we believe we have lost by giving them to machines; those things which used to make us human.

Works Cited

Arike, Ando. “What Are Humans For?: Art in the Age of Post-Human Development.” Leonardo 2001: 447-51. Web. 17 May 2012.

Benford, Gregory, and Elisabeth Malartre. Beyond Human: Living with Robots and Cyborgs. New York: Forge, 2007. Print.

“Concepts & Techniques of Machine Safeguarding – Chapter 6.” Concepts & Techniques of Machine Safeguarding – Chapter 6. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, 5 June 2011. Web. 22 May 2012. <;.

Grimsley, Ronald. “‘Dread’ as a Philosophical Concept.” The Philosophical Quarterly 6.24 (1956): 245-55. Web. 17 May 2012.

“IRobot – Home Page.” IRobot Corporation: Robots That Make a Difference. 7 June 2011. Web. 22 May 2012. <;.

Kurzweil, Ray. The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich, and Reginald John Hollingdale. Twilight of the Idols and the Anti-Christ. London [u.a.: Penguin, 2003. Print.

Pryor, Sally. “Thinking of Oneself as a Computer.” Leonardo 1991: 585-90. Web. 17 May 2012.

Short Circuit. Dir. John Badham. Perf. Ally Sheedy, Steve Guttenburg. TriStar Pictures, 1986. DVD.

Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic, 2011. Print.

WALL-E. Dir. Andrew Stanton. By Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon, Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, and Jeff Garlin. Prod. Jim Morris. Perf. Sigourney Weaver, Jeff Garlin, Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Fred Willard. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2008. DVD.

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