What do fictional robots mean to us? They’re depositories for our fears about technology. Of course they are. But I think they’re mostly a way for us to look at ourselves–our own brains, our own consciousness, and our own societies and cultures.
Who can forget the evil robots of fiction? The HAL 9000. The Replicants of Bladerunner. Skynet. They’re terrifying because they don’t care about us. All they want is to kill us before we kill them.
But I’m more interested in the fictional robots that are more like us–the robots who invite us to see ourselves more clearly. Like the Software Objects in Ted Chiang’s “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” who are raised with tender care by the best of their human caretakers–or forgotten and abandoned by caretakers who aren’t so devoted. Or, like the companion robot Klara in Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun, a creature so sincere and filled with goodwill, she puts most humans to shame. Or the sweet android Carey, Martin L. Shoemaker’s protagonist in Today I Am Carey, a creature who values family relationships above everything.
Fictional robots give us a chance to view humanity from an outsider’s perspective, and sometimes they give us something like a higher form of humanity to aspire to.