Robots, Cyborgs, and DNA—Oh, My!

by T. Gail Pritchard, PhD, The University of Arizona

file000150798584My earliest memory of robots is from movies–Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) terrified me and Robby from Forbidden Planet (1956) fascinated me. Later, there was Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and three of my favorites Huey, Dewey, and Louie from Silent Running (1972); and of course, from recent times, Optimus Prime of the Transformers. From television, I met Robot from Lost in Space (1965-68) and various other robots and cyborgs in The Twilight Zone (1961-62), The Six Million Dollar Man (1974-78) and The Bionic Woman (1976-1978). In my reading, I encountered robots Robbie (Asimov) and Norby (Asimov and Asimov) and Eager (Fox), cyborg Cinder (Meyer), and characters whose DNA had been tweakedThe Angel Experiment (Patterson). Whether in literature, TV, or movies—robots, cyborgs, and whose DNA manipulation continue to be key elements in storylines that question, What does it mean to be human? This month’s blog looks at each of these—robots, cyborgs, and DNA manipulation and offers some interesting reads.

Robots

There are many types of robots, from industrial robots that help with manufacturing to household robots (like iRobot Roomba®) to medical robots used in surgical procedures to military robots to toy robots (like Furby and Zoomer). The one thing they have in common is each is a machine that relies on programing to function. Karel Čapek, a Czech writer, was the first to use the term “robot,” in his play, R.U.R., written in 1920. Čapek credits his brother with coining the term which means “serf labor” or “forced labor” in Czech. In 1941, Isaac Asimov used the term “robotics” to describe the study of robots and in 1942 he wrote the infamous Three Laws of Robotics—the crux of many storylines since.

The distinction between robots, androids, and cyborgs began to develop in the 1940’s. Androids are robots that look and act like humans, while cyborgs are a combination of both organic and mechanical parts. For example, Data from the Star Trek series is an android; Giordi La Forge and the Borg from Star Trek, Robocop, and Inspector Gadget are cyborgs. I’ve decided to include books about DNA manipulation into the mix because of the common themes found across these books.

Most notably, these books explore what it means to be human. Does adding mechanical parts take away humanness? What happens when a robot achieves the ability to feel emotions? If even a tiny bit of non-human DNA is introduced, is that being no longer human? What are the ethical issues if a person’s genetic code is enhanced in some way? Does the end justify the means? Is there such a thing as too much technology? These books often delve into the dangers of technology, discuss the concept of free will, reveal acts of discrimination, and warn about disconnecting from the world. During this month, I will offer up some reads from picture books introducing readers to the world of robotics to novels pushing the reader into considering the role of robotics in our world today and in the future.

Nonfiction Picture books

ZoobotsZoobots: Wild Robots Inspired by Real Animals
Helaine Becker
2014
Kids Can Press
Wow! What a fascinating look at robotics. In this amazing read, Becker explains how twelve particular animals have inspired the concept, prototype, or working version of robots. While each are incredibly amazing, I was completely captivated by the final entry, of Hiroshi Ishiguro’s Geminoid. Readers will be intrigued by each two-page spread and find themselves wanting to know more about robotics.

RobotDK Eyewitness Books: Robot
Roger Bridgman
2004
DK Children
Although this is a 2004 release and in the world of robotics that is a lifetime, this is still in excellent informational book. As with other DK Eyewitness books, the layout, design, and format make it a book readers can “dip in and out of.” Pairing it with newer releases will also give readers a sense of history and the future of robotics.

Robots1National Geographic Readers: Robots
Melissa Stewart
2014
National Geographic Children’s Books
Another in the National Geographic Readers series, Stewart utilizes photos and easily understandable details about robotics of today and tomorrow.

Novels

NorbyNorby the Mixed-up Robot
Janet Asimov and Isaac Asimov
1983
Dover Children’s
This is the first of eleven novels in the Norby Chronicles, written by Janet Asimov and her husband, Isaac Asimov. This series, geared for upper elementary and middle grader readers, is considered a great initial introduction to science fiction and robots.

EagerEager
Helen Fox
2005
Yearling
Fox’s middle grade novel explores the concepts of the relationship between humans and robots, the dangers of technology, and robot rebellion. EGR3, AKA Eager, is a replacement household robot programmed to learn from his surroundings. Eager learns much as a child does and in the process begins to notice strange happenings with the new BDC4 robots. Fox uses delightful language, creates a vivid character in Eager, and makes us question, what does it mean to be human?

ExpirationExpiration Day
William Campbell Powell
2014
Tor
This debut novel by British writer William Campbell Powell begins in the year 2049 in a small rural village in England. World population has declined dramatically with few human births. Teknoids, androids that specifically look like children (p.13), have been created to give “breathing space for scientists to work on The Problem…” (p. 324). Parents essentially lease the teknoid until it is 18 and then it is returned to Oxted Corporation for recycling. Tania, who at the beginning of the story is 11, believes she is human until an accident reveals she is not. In an instant, she goes from thinking about teknoids as “just robots” to exerting her “free will” as her 18th birthday and expiration come closer. Expiration Day explores the tension between humans and robots, becoming self-aware—whether a teknoid or a human, and the struggles of simply growing up.

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