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Crying at Robots: Emotional Responses to Artificial Intelligence

By Stephen Lee Naish.


I’ve cried so many times at the movies that it’s impossible to say what really sets me off, certainly other people crying is a factor, happy endings that are not overly saccharine work, and movies with talking dogs floor me every time. One cinematic figure in particular is always able to create a trembling lip: the robot. Despite the fact that in most cases the robot is devoid of any real feelings – it’s responses based on a configuration of predetermined code – their plight is somehow more profound than the human characters. There are some obvious encounters with robots that are meant to engage the audience emotionally. Think Schwarzenegger’s cyborg in Terminator 2: Judgement Day as he bids a final farewell (at least at the time we thought it was final) to John Conner (Edward Furlong), having protected and played a father figure to him as they fought for the survival of themselves and the future of mankind. As he slowly descends into the pit of molten metal to destroy the computer chip inside his head – the last piece of hardware that links to unwanted future- the music swells to a thundering beat and John Conner weeps for his lost robot. Or how about Blade Runner’s Rutger Hauer as the violent yet thoughtful replicant Roy Batty. In his final moments he recounts his existence in a profound monologue that Shakespeare himself would have been penned if only he’d lived in our present. The robots discussed below stem from my own personal cinematic encounters and subsequent explicit emotional responses to intense and mournful cinematic scenes. Some may not seem like choice encounters, but for me they have become the most ingrained experiences from memory.



The first tear I shed for an artificial intelligence machine was Johnny Five, the loveable, nasal voiced, US military robot, and star of Short Circuit (1986). The robots are designed by NOVA Robotics scientists Newton Crosby (Steve Guttenberg) and his partner Benjamin Jabituya-Jahrvi (Fisher Stevens) for peaceful purposes, but the program is hi-jacked by the U.S Military who see the robots as advancing their arsenal in the last days of The Cold War. During a demonstration of the robots ruthlessness, Robot number five is blasted by a blot of lightening that singes his circuits, wipes his memory, yet bestows upon him consciousness. Through a series of blunders Number Five escapes the military compound. Whilst lost and uncertain of his purpose he stumbles upon Stephanie Speck (Ally Sheedy), who thinking he might be an alien, offers him books, which he consumes in a matter of seconds, and lets him watch television shows in order to satisfy his need for ‘input’. Number Five begins to develop an individual, yet very childlike, personality and begins his journey of self discovery and awareness as a sentient being. He even christens himself Johnny Five after hearing the upbeat El DeBarge song “Who’s Johnny” on the radio. Seeing Johnny Five as a threat, the military track him down and attack him with an assortment of guns and missiles. Being the intelligent robot that he is, he ensembles a decoy replica from spare parts, which the military pound with weaponry and blow to smithereens. When Newton and Stephanie tearfully drive away from the scene of carnage, Johnny Five suddenly appears in the back of the van, much to the amazement of Newton and Stephanie, who instantly declare they will go and live on Newton’s forty acres of secluded land and raise Johnny as their own. It took years for me to finally sit through the final scene in which Johnny Five is decimated, even with the knowledge that it was decoy.

Two years later I was left even more heartbroken by a scene in the sequel Short Circuit 2  in which Johnny Five is brutally beaten by the thugs who have exploited his naiveté to help rob a bank vault.. Johnny 5 is so violently attacked that he leaks a fluid that looks like blood. When he is smashed by an iron crowbar, the fluid splatters on his assailant’s clothing in gory detail. The whole time Johnny Five is pleading with his attackers to stop. He is eventually found wandering a back alley cradling a broken arm, one eye hanging loose, and unable to communicate. As Johnny Five’s “blood” flowed, so did my tears.



Short Circuit began something of an empathetic trend. Robots, especially those with ambitions to be human, or adopt human traits, always seem to make an emotional connection with me. Johnny Five is an early example. I recall witnessing Lieutenant Commander Data (Brent Spiner), the android who steered the U.S.S Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation, stumble and fall, yet continually pull himself up, in his quest for humanity. His response to most situations were tinged with a childlike curiosity. Encountering the deadly Borg, intervening in an alien squabble, discovering a new gaseous cloud, and even sex, were all greeted with the same enthusiasm and wonder.Star Trek: The Next Generation, stumble and fall, yet continually pull himself up, in his quest for humanity. His response to most situations were tinged with a childlike curiosity. Encountering the deadly Borg, intervening in an alien squabble, discovering a new gaseous cloud, and even sex, were all greeted with the same enthusiasm and wonder. When he finally bites the bullet in the ultimately disappointing Star Trek: Nemesis (2002), the impact is felt because we have followed his journey of discovery through all seven seasons of the television series and the three TNG feature films. Data’s desire to be human, or at least exhibit real human emotions, leads him to sacrifice himself in order to save those that have assisted his development towards humanity. In a similar response to Spock’s death in Wrath of Khan (for me it is not the passing of Spock itself that creates the emotional response, but the admittance of companionship from the otherwise emotionally cold Vulcan), it is the warm father/son (whilst Kirk and Spock’s relationship is more like brother/lover) relationship between Data and Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) that ultimately sets the tears rolling. From Picard’s perspective he has lost a son, for it has been Picard who has set the chain of Data’s development in motion by continually encouraging his evolution and placing him situations where he gains knowledge and experience, just like a father.

Recently the Neill Blomkamp film, Chappie (2015) explored a similar premise to Short Circuit. A state of the art Johannesburg police robot is stolen by its inventor and is given new programming that gives him the ability to think and feel for himself. The initial response to the world from the robot Chappie is that of a curious, yet nervous, child. I will state here that I, as of yet, have not seen Chappie. An oversight for this article, I know. The film’s promotional trailer alone gave me the spine tingling shivers that are the usual precursor to tears. For that reason, and also the rather dire reviews that came out prior to its release, I have avoided the film for now. The trailer that shows the character of Chappie being hounded by a gang of Jo’burg thugs and then being gunned down by the military are, at present, enough for me to know that however disappointing Chappie might be as whole, the robot will produce the same tear stained cheeks as the rest of them. No doubt Chappie will catch up with me, and when it does I’ll be a mess of a man.



The above robotics have all been in possession of some sort of physical human trait. Despite not being strictly humanoid, Johnny Five has recognisable eyes and mouth, his mouth in fact is a little LED pad that lights up as he talks. Knight Rider used a similar trope to humanise the A.I car KITT. Data is instantly recognisable as humanoid, only his pasty white skin, yellow eyes, and stiff demeanour single him out as different from his crewmates. Whilst Chappie and his legion of police robots look menacing with their hard worn exterior, blinking lights, and big guns. Taken out of this context Chappie appears cute. His sticky-up ears as a reaction to new encounters bears a resemblance to a happy dog who’s just learned he’s going ‘walkies’. Part of my own reaction to these robots is their similarity to human beings. My basis being that I sided with their cause because I saw reflected in their desire for acceptance mankind’s own struggles. At least this is what I thought. Imagine my surprise when a lump developed in my throat during Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014). There are many moments within the film that could certainly produce a few tears, but the two lumbering monolithic robots TARS and CASE do not seem obvious contenders. Their appearance is akin to that of a VHS cassette tape still in its cellophane wrapper. Nevertheless, CASE’s heroics on Miller’s Planet, in which he saves Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) from an immense tidal wave, stirred something inside me. Later when TARS and Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) sacrifice themselves in order to allow Brand to traverse the gigantic wormhole which may lead to mankind’s very survival (no spoilers here!) the scene overwhelmed me, more so than in any other of the emotional scenes that are dotted throughout Interstellar. I silently sobbed, desperately trying to hide my tears from the friends whom I’d accompanied and the two chatty teenagers sat behind me. TARS acknowledged his fate with dignity and humour.

As mentioned above, my initial and long-thought reasoning for empathizing with robots was the similarity to human beings, if that be a physical resemblance, or a metaphorical one. Interstellar changed this perception. It is not their similarity to humans that causes this reaction, but it’s their differences from humans that I have come to recognise as the major factor. In some respects these robots face adversity and peril in a more dignified and noble manner than any of their human co-stars. In Short Circuit, Johnny Five is supposedly blown to pieces by a military unit that unleashes its full arsenal of weaponry on the hapless robot. Yet he takes no revenge, instead using his cunning to construct a replica that fools the army into drawing their fire, whilst he makes an escape with the two humans who have shown him compassion. In Short Circuit 2, Johnny Five is berated in the streets, vandalised by some street toughs, and eventually beaten to a pulp (or whatever the metal equivalent is). Yet he shrugs off the criticism, believes the street toughs have decorated him, and when he finally catches up with his assailants, he lets the police take them into custody, justice served. Despite all the setbacks, he willingly becomes a citizen (along with his co-creator Benjamin Jabituya-Jahrvi) to a country that has constantly inflicted harm upon him.

On the other hand Data has been accepted into the social functions of his crewmates. He is considered an equal in every way. That is not to say he doesn’t face some hardships or some form of conflict from his encounters with other people and aliens. He is often called upon by his superiors to place himself in situations no human will venture. His incredible strength means he is first choice for risky away missions, and he often becomes the protector and saviour of his crewmates in peril. Chappie is initially created for the sole purpose of protection of law abiding citizens and the dishing out the punishment to those who would break that law. He and his legion patrol the dangerous streets of Johannesburg as if they were an occupying military unit. TARS and CASE are former U.S. Marine Corps robots that have been given a new, yet ultimately more dangerous purpose of traversing time and space to find a planet suitable for human occupation after Earth’s resources have been exhausted.

These robots were created to serve humanity, in most cases, in the context of aggression and warfare. Only Data has been created with peaceful intentions, and with the ability to exceed his programming, yet even he is often called upon to end disputes and impose order in an aggressive manner. Johnny Five, Chappie, TARS and CASE also exceed their original programming, find peaceful means, and in effect become the better angels of our nature. Replacing the violence that is programmed (or inherent) into them with a resolve and self sacrifice no member of the human race could muster. My own teary-eyed response to robots is not necessarily based on seeing them come to psychical harm, or be the victim of disrespect or verbal abuse – though this is factor or course. It is based on the fact that our own creations have exceeded us, and bettered our own human nature, shown us up for being the cruel manipulative creatures we are. When I cry for robots, I’m really crying for a version of humanity that doesn’t exist.



Stephen Lee Naish is a writer, originally from the UK, but now living in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. He is the author of U.ESS.AY: Politics and Humanity in American Film (Zero Books), and two forthcoming books, one on Dennis Hopper, and the other on Dirty Dancing. He has had essays and articles published in numerous magazines and journals. Follow him on twitter @steleenaish.


First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, June 22nd, 2015.