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April 15, 2010

Geek Out!: Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto

Posted: 01:06 PM ET

Editor's note: Geek Out! posts feature the latest and most interesting in nerd-culture news. From scifi and fantasy to gadgets and science, if you can geek out over it you can find it on Geek Out! Look for Geek Out! posts on CNN's SciTech blog.

Every year at about this time, downtown Atlanta, Georgia, is filled to the brim with young, colorfully costumed robot enthusiasts in town for the FIRST competition. These kids are on the cusp of a robotics revolution, because the machines are truly hip right now; they can be found adorning store shelves, song lyrics and snarky T-shirts.

As long as humans have walked the earth, it seems they have dreamed of creating automated machines that can get work done - often, work they hate doing or find repetitive or dangerous - while silently hoping that the 'bots won't get all passive-agressive about it and start starting something. And what if they take over? We're in the midst of National Robotics Week, so let's delve into popular culture and take a look at this fear and fascination with simmering robot passions.

The desire to make automated machines goes back as far as human history itself. Historians and mythologists will point to symbolic robots like Talos, a bronze man incorporated into Greek mythology who was built to protect Zeus' love Europa in Crete. He was both stronger than a man and also able to take torture that people would find intolerable.

Much later on, Leonardo da Vinci was experimenting with an automated humanoid robot that looked like it was a knight's armor. There's a long history of robotic aspirations throughout the years, but the point is, humans want to make machines that kind of look like them and can do things. And when these robots dip into the uncanny valley, where they sort of look human and sort of not, that's when they get a little creepy. It was roboticist Masahiro Mori, in fact, who coined the term in a 1970 writing. And thus, humans grapple with the idea of a robot that is almost human in contrast to a robot that is cute and charming (a la R2-D2 from Star Wars, Johnny 5 from Short Circuit and Wall-E).

Many robots nowadays are designed to be cute for this very reason. CNN iReporter Fatina Chau sent us a photo of an adorable and hardworking robot being tested in Shanghai, China, while another iReporter, Veera K., showed us a robot that dances to cute music while serving food in a restaurant in Bangkok, Thailand. Visitors order their food on a computer panel. These robots aren't threatening, and yet the latter robot could threaten to replace waiters. It's no wonder humanoids are ambivalent about their creations.

Popular culture portrays robots as scary when needed. On TV, Craig Ferguson (or Craigy Ferg, as he's known on the Twitters) lampooned his show's budgetary constraints by creating an ongoing comedy segment featuring a robot skeleton sidekick. This robot is a bit scary-looking, but it's learning. This of course puts the contrast with a human sidekick in stark relief.

We love and hate our robots, and that's why we're always doing the robot dance and singing along to that song "Mr. Roboto" from Styx's 1983 album "Kilroy was here." The song prominently features robots, including the oft-repeated phrase "Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto." If you're following the plot, Kilroy escapes from prison by pretending to be a robot prison guard. Also, one of the albums on frequent rotation in my playlist is 2002's "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots" by The Flaming Lips, which very specifically delineates a fight against pink robots. Although the songs themselves aren't necessarily following the same kind of "Kilroy" story, the robot-esque battle depicted on the cover is attention-getting.

We love our robots but secretly fear and loathe them. So, take a moment right now - yes, right now - to stop everything and do a little robot dance, and then tell us: What do you think?

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Filed under: Geek Out! • iReport • technology

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Nighthhaawk   April 15th, 2010 1:39 pm ET

OK ... Favorite robot of all time .. ROBBY from Forbidden Planet!

The "B-9" environmental control robot from "Lost In Space"

"Danger Will Robinson!!!"

Kalel3756   April 15th, 2010 2:16 pm ET

the robot maid from the Jetsons!!!

James   April 15th, 2010 2:36 pm ET

Six – Battlestar Galactica

ssb   April 15th, 2010 2:45 pm ET

The little mail delivery robot in Wonder Woman.

JG in NY   April 15th, 2010 2:53 pm ET

Is there a robot in the universe that compares to Bender? Bender thinks not!

Lenny   April 15th, 2010 3:04 pm ET

Gort, the robot from "The Day The Earth Stood Still."

Avrailer(Jeremii)   April 15th, 2010 3:12 pm ET

my mother

Brad   April 15th, 2010 3:14 pm ET

-I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
–Yes, sir.
-Are you listening?
–Yes, I am.
–Just how do you mean that, sir?

alaska   April 15th, 2010 3:15 pm ET

R2-D2? 😀

Michael in NC   April 15th, 2010 3:18 pm ET

Clearly the Daleks in Doctor Who.


Stacey   April 15th, 2010 3:20 pm ET

Hey, These guys have Bender, Gort, and bunch of other cool robots!

George   April 15th, 2010 3:43 pm ET

Mr. Data.

OK, an Android, not a robot, but still...

Jay   April 15th, 2010 3:50 pm ET

The IDAK (Instant Destroyer And Killer) robot from Lost in Space.
Who among saw that episode and did not spend the following days roaming around, repeating "Crush! Kill!! Destroy!!!" and annoying the hell out of our parents?

Scott   April 15th, 2010 4:07 pm ET

Box – Logan's Run

Yvonne   April 15th, 2010 4:26 pm ET

Johnny 5 from ShortCircuit... lol

Jason   April 15th, 2010 4:32 pm ET

Maximilian – The Black Hole

Kevin Cassidy   April 15th, 2010 4:42 pm ET


Robocub   April 15th, 2010 5:01 pm ET

Robby the Robot (Forbidden Planet)
B-9 (Lost in Space TV series)
K-9 (Doctor Who)
Box (Logan's Run)
Huey, Dewey, Lewey (Silent Running)
Cylon Centurions (Batlestar Galactica original 1978 series)

matteus   April 15th, 2010 5:04 pm ET

Dewey, Huey, and Louie from silent running

Patch   April 15th, 2010 5:05 pm ET

I just wanted to thank you for referencing FIRST Robotics in this article. FIRST was an amazing experience that I was fortunate to be part of for four years. FIRST helped me academically, socially, and in my hunt for college. I thoroughly recommend the FIRST program to anyone who has an interest in engineering or mechanics, or wants to simply have a great time.

Steve   April 15th, 2010 5:24 pm ET

Robostool and CoolerBot from Norris Labs.

Stuart   April 15th, 2010 5:47 pm ET

Best robot ever? Hithchiker's Guide to the Galaxy-Marvin the paranoid andoid

Nick   April 15th, 2010 6:31 pm ET

The author of this article does not seem to be very well informed when they say "It was roboticist Masahiro Mori, in fact, who coined the term in a 1970 writing." If they had bothered to check, they would have found the term "Robot" was used well before 1970. In fact, I, Robot, a collection of nine science fiction short stories by Isaac Asimov, was first published in 1950.

Nicole Saidi, Associate Producer for User Participation   April 15th, 2010 7:16 pm ET

Hey Nick, thanks for your diligent readership (I wrote this). I just want to clarify that in that sentence, I was in fact referring to the term "uncanny valley," rather than the word "robot."

dave bishop   April 15th, 2010 8:24 pm ET

you gotta love UNIBLAB from the Jetsons.

"Back to work, back to work, everybody work, work, work, work."

a short career but stellar.....

fumnigator   April 15th, 2010 8:26 pm ET


lIllI   April 16th, 2010 6:55 am ET

Best ever....Twiki from Buck Rogers!

"Bidi Bidi Bidi"

gamEr   April 16th, 2010 8:53 am ET

why use pink robots????

brian   April 16th, 2010 11:32 am ET

Have to second the vote for Bender as best robot ever!

AGuest9   April 16th, 2010 7:59 pm ET

The Autobots

Sency   April 16th, 2010 10:29 pm ET

Mr Roboto seem to be a favoritte on the web

Fatina   May 2nd, 2010 2:20 pm ET

wow, Cannot believe I and my robot was mentioned here.
btw, welcome to Shanghai Expo.

animals   April 24th, 2017 5:33 am ET

It's a new era – the robot era!

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