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Robots: A History: Robots in PopCulture

The Birth of a Genre

As it was mentioned in the "History of Robotics" section on the home page of this libguide, robot technology and the creation of science fiction are interwoven tightly. 
Since the 1920s, robots have become a staple in books, shows, movies, and pop culture in general. Here are a few of the most famous 'bots in literature and on the silver screen!

In Literature

Literature is arguably the entire reason that the modern concept of robots exist. Prior to the creation of science fiction as a genre, the concept of robots as we now know them didn't really exist. Re-animated corpses such as Frankenstein's Monster, automatons, and golems or golem-like creatures existed, but robots as machines didn't become a widespread concept til the 1920s.


On January 25, 1921, Czech playwright Karl Capek introduced new terminology to the world. His three-act dystopian play titled "RUR" or "Rossum's Universal Robots," was the first time the word "robot" was ever used. Creating the term from the Czech term for "forced labor," Capek's robots were android laborers made from a chemical batter with the purpose of performing unwanted and difficult jobs for their human creators and owners. The play's climax comes when the robots realize that, although they lack the emotion, passion, and history of their creators, they are ultimately stronger and smarter than humans. 


Isaac Asimov, arguably one of the most influential authors in the creation of science fiction as an established genre, drew from his background as a biochemist for many of his stories. In a short story published in the May 1940 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, he created what are now the Three Laws of Robotics

  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 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 Law.

It was Asimov who influenced the idea that robots don't have to be imagined or thought of as mindless, programmable machines. With his creation of the three laws, he moved beyond the trope of a machine only programmed to kill, or only programmed to do good, and into the realm of the idea of robots, machines, who could make decisions for themselves. His career as an author cemented this idea into the minds of writers and even scientists alike. The Robot Series, is made up of 5 novels and 38 short stories, including his most famous I, Robot, which was the base for the 2004 movie.

Philip K Dick is another author who's work was iconic in science fiction. His Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was the inspiration for the 1982 film 'Bladerunner.' Dicks's work heavily draws on the questions and queries surrounding the development and creation of artificial intelligence. His plot, set in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco, revolves around the idea that robots, androids, can inherit and learn human traits such as empathy, emotions, and the subconscious. 

Originally produced as a BBC Radio series in 1978, Douglas Adams' hilarious science fiction hit was so popular, it was later put into different formats, including the book, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, in 1981, and the movie in 2005. One of the main characters, Marvin, also Marvin the Paranoid Android, is quite possibly one of the most depressed examples of androids in literature. Adams' use of the robot as a comedic field shows just how far the perception of robots have come since the penny issues of science fiction short stories.

Robots in Music

Robots and music isn't the most obvious connection, but robotics has influenced music more than most realize. Electronic music, album art, artists' fashion influences, many stem from the influence of the developing technology. Here are some examples! 

In a blog post titled "Your Petrochemical Arms: A Brief History of Cyborgs, Superhumans and Robots in Pop Music," published in conjunction with an exhibit at the Wellcome Collection, numerous artists, songs, and albums such as DEVO, Daft Punk, techno/house/electronic music, Kraftwerk, and more were discussed for their heavily robotic influenced style, sound, or feel.

Spooner: Robots don't feel fear. They don't feel anything. They don't eat, they don't sleep-

SonnyI do. I have even had dreams.

SpoonerHuman beings have dreams. Even dogs have dreams, but not you. You are just a machine; an imitation of life. Can a robot write a symphony? Can a robot turn a... canvas into a beautiful masterpiece?

Sonny: Can you?

I, Robot (2004 film) 

March, Ashura, and Cosmo make up the robotic band dubbed "Z-Machine" by their creators. Controlled by computers, these robots can play anything from orchestral to experimental rock music! Read more about them here!

David Cope created an emulator he dubbed EMMY, to continue his work in "experimental musical intelligence," and has published some of the pieces resulting from that project. 

However, he's far from the only scientists who's been working in this field. Much like the query asked by the robot Sonny in 2004's film I, Robot, the question of 'can robots actually make music?' has been one that scientists have experimented with for a long time. Read the whole article on musical artificial intelligence here.

On the Silver Screen

From book-into-film adaptations to original content, film series, it's been on film that robots have the more well known place in popular culture. Throughout the past decades, it's much easier to see the increase in the role of robotics and robots through film than perhaps any other medium. Check out some of these well-loved, and sometimes, well-hated examples of popular robots in Hollywood.

B9, the robot from Lost In Space between 1965 to 1968
‚ÄčTwiki the Robot, from the tv series Buck Rogers & the 25th Century, was on screen from 1979-1981.
Crow T. Robot, from Mystery Science Theater 3000, airing between 1988 - 1999 (and soon to be revived)
Transformers, airing from 1984-1987, with the film series launching in 2007.
Robby the Robot, from the made-for-tv-movie The Forbidden Planet in 1958.
Astroboy, from his manga series in 1952 to 1968, then an American cartoon run beginning in 1963, with countless adaptations since then.

Of course, we can't talk robots without mentioning Star Wars. The movies are full of droids- android and otherwise, with personalities as varied as humans. 3P0, R2, and now BB8 are perhaps some of the most loved droids from Hollywood.

Data, from Star Trek: Next Generation, is an android who, once again, plays off of the themes that Phillip Dick wrote about in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. His struggles with understanding humanity, adapting, and learning emotions. In fact, his desire to become human became a weakness that was exploited by the Borg in Star Trek VII: First Contact.

More and more often, robots have been created as showing emotion. Wall-E, while not being android in design, nonetheless shows a wide array of emotions, (especially curiosity) endearing him to movie viewers young and old alike. Eve, at first, falls into the classic trope of a programmed robot doing its job, until she begins to show emotion after meeting Wall-E, which draws on the ideas that Phillip Dick wrote about in his novel: can robots/androids/machines observe & learn emotion? 


Starting at 10:38, Rosie the Robot Maid is introduced to The Jetsons tv show. Originally running from September 23, 1962, to March 17, 1963, then revived by Hanna-Barbera from 1985-1987, the sassy, quirky robot maid is one of the more memorable robots created for television.

The longest running science fiction series, BBC's Doctor Who, of course, has some great robotic villains, such as the Cybermen, but also memorable robotic heroes, one of which, is K9. First introduced during Season 15 with Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor, K9 & his regenerations continued to be stars and guest-stars on the show clear up until the present day, and eventually got his own spin-off series. You can read about the full history of the robot companion here.

One of the newest additions to the Hollywood robot family, Baymax was ain instant hit on the screen and at home. The interesting part, though, is the fact that the animated robot was actually based on a real-life robot developed by DARPA. Check out some of their footage here.