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Robots and cyborgs in fiction

Prairie robot
19th century fantasy comic book

Throughout the story of scientific development, there has been speculation about creating humanoid machines. Robotics is a staple of science fiction, but is now also a respected discipline in academic circles, and many business interests are focused on developing the technologies which were once through pure fantasy.

With an overlap to medical prosthetics, biology, and computing cybernetics, the exact delineation between robots, cyborgs, and androids has become blurred.

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Classic female robot from Fritz Lang's Metropolis

The term robot was first used used in a 1921 play 'R.U.R. Rossum's Universal Robots', by the Czech playright Karel Ĉapek. It comes from old Bulgarian, 'robota', meaning 'servile'.

Robots have been built since ancient times. Leonardo Da Vinci even had a go, drawing designs for automated human dolls!

Full-scale clockwork mannequins have been used for amusement since the 18th century, doing such things as playing chess (featured also in the Dr. Who epsiode 'Nightmare in Silver, Series 7). Robots became a common device of science fiction, playing the role of menial but usually intelligent servants, to evil opponents, or congenial sidekicks, in countless films and TV shows.

There is no one definition of robot. However, robots are usually mechanical, mostly metallic and 'soulless', but equipped with superhuman strength and artificial intelligence.

Human-machine interface
Human-machine interface: who controls who?

A cyborg is an organic life form with electronic and/or mechanical implants/components/organs built into the body that improve upon its natural capabilities.

Another definition of a cyborg is a fictional or hypothetical person whose physical abilities are extended beyond normal human limitations by mechanical elements built into the body.

The Oxford Dictionary tells us: 'A cyborg is a living being whose powers are enhanced by computer implants or mechanical body parts'.

The cyborg device in fiction is often used to heighten tension, since they can masquerade as humans.

Robot reality and cyborg fantasy
Robot reality and cyborg fantasy: at what point is fiction fact?

Dr. Who

Dr Who is a very popular TV Series by the BBC. It was first broadcast in 1963, and has run fairly consistently since then.

Made with much lower budgets than spectacular Hollywood blockbusters, the appeal of the programme is in the ingenious plots and storylines, as well as the high quality acting.

The founders of, Andrew Bone and Sean Bone, are big fans of Dr. Who, and discuss animatedly the correctness of science in the scripts. This page presents some of their findings and ideas on the subject:

Dr Who robots

Robots have featured regularly in Dr. Who. In fact, the writers have experimented very creatively in every imaginable form of robot, across the spectrum to cyborgs and artificial living organisms. Here are a few of the more memorable robots:

  • K9
  • The lackey of Dr. Who AKA Tom Baker, this faithful doggie has no organic parts, and is entirely mechanical (although cute), so is a robot.

  • Teselecta
  • The robot operated by a miniaturised human crew, which comes to shanghai Hitler (Series 6, Ep. 8, Let's Kill Hitler). Later, Dr. Who obtains one of these robots of himself as a decoy.

  • S.S. Madame de Pompadour's crew
  • Clockwork anthropomorphic devices which used humans for spare parts (significant yuck factor).

  • Professor Edwin Bracewell
  • Robot built by the Daleks, but believes he is human.

Dr Who cyborgs

  • Cybermen
  • Grotesque robotic structures built around and grafted onto a human. This 'upgrading' is made possible by human feeling inhibitors.

  • Daleks
  • Debatable to what degree the organic creature and its mechanical exoskeleton are united.

  • Psi
  • The hacker from "Time Heist". Psi had a computer chip plug-in.

Other creatzoids

  • The Face of Boe
  • The far-distant in time Captain Jack, existing in a life-support system.

  • Weeping Angels
  • Beings which appear as statues for the visual perception of others and themselves.

  • Ice Warriors
  • Warrior beings almost entirely existing within a suit of armour.

  • The Empty Child
  • 'Are you my mummy?', creatures controlled by nanoparticles.

  • The Flesh
  • Clones manufactured to do dangerous jobs.

  • Cassandra
  • The last human, a flatplate girl with an ego problem.

  • Tardis
  • Time and Range Dimension In Space. The time space vehicle of Dr. Who. The Tardis has in some episodes its own intelligence and even feelings, taking a liking or dislike to certain people. In 'The Doctor's Wife', Series 6, the doctor (AKA Matt Smith) encounters a personification of the soul of the Tardis, qualifying it to be a cyborg?

Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy

This brilliant BBC comedy, first broadcast in 1978 (2 series), is probably the most successful science fiction radioplay ever.

Syrian cybernetics
Douglas Adams' Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy is probably the greatest radioplay masterpiece about galactic freelance journalism ever made

Douglas Adams introduces us to machines with an attitude, variable computer personalities, including Marvin the paranoid android, and depressed mind-reading lifts, who took to skulking in basements.

Syrian Cybernetics produced robots under the slogan 'Your plastic pal who is fun to be with', which led to a rebellion against all machines on one world, and people evolving into giant birds to get away from the whole 'footsy thing'.

Content © Renewable.Media. All rights reserved. Created : October 5, 2014 Last updated :October 30, 2015

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