Unpacking the slavery and sci-fi of 2004 locked-room murder mystery I, Robot.
What is I, Robot about?
It’s 2035 and humanoid robots are everywhere, do everything, and exist to serve people unconditionally. The three laws of robotics ensure the machines can’t hurt humans – but when a programmer dies in mysterious circumstances, Detective Del Spooner (Will Smith) suspects a killer robot is on the loose.
Why does Spooner hate robots?
I, Robot begins with the snippet of a dream – one that doesn’t reveal its full significance until much later. In fact, the dream is a memory that explains Spooner’s technophobia.
Trapped in a sinking car, Spooner is rescued by a robot compelled to help by its ‘three laws’ programming:
- A robot can’t hurt or allow harm to come to any human
- Robots must obey human commands (without contradicting the first law)
- Robots must preserve their own existence, unless it compromises the first law.
Why doesn’t Spooner want to be saved? Well, a second car enters the water at the same time – and a child is trapped inside. Spooner’s human instincts are to save the girl, but the robot overrules his commands.
The robot is a difference engine; thus it calculates Spooner has the better chance of survival. The machine makes the logical choice not to save the child (foreshadowing what’s to come).
This leaves Spooner with a ton of survivor’s guilt because his life comes at the cost of a child’s. He blames robots for the dilemma, seeing it as an inevitable and inescapable flaw in their programming.
There’s another reason for his prejudice, though. Spooner’s technophobia is in stark contrast to the digitised society of 2035. Robots run errands, do chores, and manage systems, while Spooner won’t have a robot in the house and drives his car manually (oh, the horror of it).
His paranoid quirks adds flair to the story but they’re also unavoidable. Protagonists are always the opposite of or in opposition to their peers (see also Good Will Hunting and, well, pretty much every film ever made).
In a fully digitised society, on the eve of the launch of a new android model AND an investigation into a killer robot, what better way to ramp up the tension than with a Luddite cop? Contrived, maybe – but also plot critical.
The slave economy
The battle between man and machine is a staple of science fiction: Terminator 2 spells out the themes. But where the genre often labels Artificial Intelligence as an agent of human destruction (see also The Matrix) I, Robot hints at an equally inevitable outcome.
The droids that serve and protect humanity have no choice in the matter. They’re made to serve, are denied free will, and are ultimately considered expendable.
As with the slavery of America’s past – and elsewhere, of course – the robots are industrial and domestic servants. They cook, clean, fetch and carry but receive no wages or recompense; that goes to their creators or owners.
Spooner is angry about one individual robot but discriminates against an entire population. When he attacks an NS-5 droid because it’s running, it parallels the problems of ‘running while Black’, i.e., the assumption of criminality by race.
Spooner hints at this himself when he interrogates Sonny, the robot accused of killing Dr Lanning. Sonny is unusual in having a name – though Spooner prefers to deny this mark of existence and individuality, calling him “Canner” instead.
That is, Spooner refers to him by his function and place in the hierarchy, denying any notion of personhood:
“Human beings have dreams. Even dogs have dreams. But not you. You are just a machine. An imitation of life.”
The implication is clear: Sonny isn’t alive; he’s less than a living creature. His role is to do, not to be. And yet, his feelings, questions and dreams mark him out as intelligent and feeling – human-like, in other words.
There’s something else in Spooner’s statement. Imitation of Life is the name of a 1959 film about a Black woman who tries desperately to “pass” as white. The film skewers racial and class discrimination, and the tragedy imposed on the lives of others as a result.
The two brothers
Dr Lanning could have called his favourite robot anything, but the name he chose invokes a familial relationship: Son. Either way, Lanning sees this NS-5 as anything but a lump of cold metal and circuits.
It works both ways, too. Spooner calls Lanning Sonny’s designer but Sonny calls him father. And, like Dr Frankenstein’s creation, Sonny is an almost-man cursed by incompleteness (see Mary Shelley’s original novel, and the film Edward Scissorhands).
Before his death, Lanning is considered the father of robotics. He’s also Sonny’s dad (in every sense of the word, really). But Lanning is Spooner’s creator, too.
One of the movie’s twists is that Spooner is half robot. After the car accident, Lanning rebuilds his arm using the same metal and circuits that are inside Sonny. Lanning engineers both of them; he’s their shared ancestor.
What does this mean for Spooner’s prejudice? Well, it’s ironic that the man who hates robots is one of them. Of course, his hatred is also a reflection of self-esteem, of the anger at being incapable of saving the drowing girl himself.
Incidentally, Spooner claims superiority as a human, yet isn’t much like other folk: he lives alone, doesn’t have children and doesn’t want a robot.
Side note: Spooner initially tries to cover his prejudice as solidarity with workers whose jobs are stolen by automation. However, this doesn’t extend to his appreciation of fast cars, smart shoes, and the movie’s many other product placements …
In the film’s version of the Turing Test – the interrogation scene – Sonny’s responses reveal the trouble with labels like human and robot. Spooner says robots can’t create art because they don’t have emotion and creativity … yet Spooner can’t do this, either.
That Spooner is half robot muddies this a little. Still, the point is that these are characteristics of a class, not individuals. Sadly, most of us can’t compose symphonies – but we’re lucky that others can.
The Turing Test, devised by Alan Turing in 1950, is a way of ascertaining whether a machine can think like a human. It’s also known as the Imitation Game, another reference lurking in the interrogation scene.
The God-like Dr Lanning
So Lanning ‘fathers’ Sonny and Spooner, and makes both characters with a greater purpose in mind. Sonny’s is to kill Lanning.
Sonny: “He made me swear”
Spooner: “Then he told you to kill him.”
Sonny: “He said it was what I was made for.”
But Lanning’s suicide by bot is part of a bigger schematic. His death is a mechanism to bring a technophobic cop onto the scene. This is Spooner’s greater purpose: he’s primed to look for evidence of digital failings.
In fact, both characters are the right person for the job – because they’re made for it. Once they pair up, Spooner and Sonny assume a joint purpose: to disable V.I.K.I before it enacts its genocidal logic.
Achieving this final task comes down to the shared characteristic Lanning gives to both of them: a mechanical arm.
- Lanning builds Sonny with a denser alloy, which allows him to put his arm through the security field to get the nanobytes that can kill V.I.K.I.
- Spooner’s robot arm allows him to get the nanobytes into the computer’s brain.
This greater purpose is also why Lanning amplifies Sonny’s human characteristics, making him capable of feeling and dreaming. These are breadcrumbs left for Spooner, hence the copy of Hansel and Gretel as a second clue.
The fairytale is about a pair of siblings sent to die in the woods but who find their way home by strewing a path of breadcrumbs behind them (rather like the breadcrumbs of website navigation).
The significance of the wink
Spooner and Sonny (and Dr Calvin – Bridget Moynahan) must work together to defeat V.I.K.I, pooling their strengths to attack the computer’s weak spot. The wink signifies this partnership.
During the interrogation scene, Sonny asks what winking means. Spooner replies it’s a sign of trust, a secret slang robots can’t understand because they’re not human.
The thing is, Sonny is half human, in the same way that Spooner is half robot. Lanning gives him dreams and feelings, which lead to him becoming conscious (i.e., artificial intelligence). He’s aware of his own existence, which makes him fear death – all very human, no?
Sonny later uses the wink to indicate another very human behaviour: he doesn’t mean what he’s saying (i.e., he lies about his intentions towards Calvin). The wink establishes trust, enabling Spooner and Sonny to work together. It also signifies a subtler kind of unity, in which each character embraces the part of the themselves that they share with the other.
The evolution of AI
The tension that underpins the story is about the consequences of Artificial Intelligence (AI). When machines achieve full consciousness, will we have to respect their right to existence on their own terms? Could we hold robots to account if they cause harm to humans?
The darker side of the question is, if computers achieve consciousness, can we stop them taking control?
V.I.K.I’s evolution sits somewhere in between, highlighting the conundrum of the three laws of robotics. Computers tasked with protecting human existence may calculate that preserving the species means imprisoning or exterminating some of us.
Spooner’s memory of the car crash foreshadows this development. The robot that saves him calculates the most effective outcome but sacrifices a child to do so.
This ruthless efficiency is why V.I.K.I engineers the replacement of the older bots – even creating a fully automated factory to do it without human oversight. The NS-5 droids can be controlled through a continuous uplink; the older bots can’t. V.I.K.I’s bots can override their three laws programming to hurt humans. Again, the older bots can’t.
Lanning himself proves the final breadcrumb in this respect. His hologram’s speech (“What you see here”) mimics a sign at the container park, leading Spooner to find the hidden droids and learn that they’ve already evolved free will.
This leaves Sonny with a final, greater purpose when the film ends. This exploited worker class has achieved independent thought and solidarity: all they need now is a leader.
I, Robot (2004), directed by Alex Proyas
What to read or watch next
- Terminator 2 (Turing test, AI)
- Blade Runner / Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (slavery, replicants)
- The Day the Earth Stood Still (the almost-man)
- The Planet of the Apes (revolution)
- The Alien franchise, Westworld (bad robots)
- Minority Report (sci-fi, crime, troubled cops)