What ‘Chappie,’ other robots with consciousness tell us about ourselves

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In the sci-fi film “CHAPPiE,” director Neill Blomkamp deploys a cute, kind, brave, smart, wise, robot to reboot big ideas.

Science fiction writers and filmmakers typically recruit androids and automatons when toying with profound one-liners by philosophers: “Knowledge is power,” “Know thyself” and “I think, therefore I am.” In “CHAPPiE” Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell script an intrepid engineer Deon (Dev Patel) to get his motivation by a glance at a cubicle poster reading: “Craft Life … don’t let life craft you.”

The quandaries in “CHAPPiE” can be traced to earlier works of speculative entertainment. What do our machines — our make-believe ones in this case — tell us about ourselves? Robots figure in plots that moralize about science, slavery and souls.

In “CHAPPiE,” Deon steals a decommissioned police robot from his employer, a high-tech weapons manufacturer named Tetravaal. (“Tetra Vaal” was an 81-second corporate video for a fictional line of robotic cops that Blomkamp shot in 2003.) Playing himself, correspondent Anderson Cooper reports “the deployment of the first all-robotic police force” in Johannesburg in 2016.

Deon takes an all-nighter to upload his new app for artificial intelligence into the damaged device. “It could write music and write poetry,” he predicts. But thugs — including one named “America”— kidnap this impressionable battery-powered biped, name it “Chappie,” teach it to strut with a gangsta gait, and turn their new tool into a carjacker.

“I am consciousness. I am alive. I am Chappie,” it (Sharlto Copley) announces.

Vincent (Hugh Jackman), an envious Christian ex-military engineer at Tetravaal, sabotages the firmware in all of Tetravaal’s non-conscious off-the-shelf models on patrol. In the ensuing urban chaos — “The robot pigs are offline!” yells a rioter — Vincent dispatches his over-killer prototype to duel with Chappie. When Deon is mortally wounded, Chappie uploads Deon’s consciousness into a robot like itself. Creator roles are swapped. Homo faber meets Robo faber. Buddy bots.

The word “robot” comes from Karel Capek’s play “R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots),” first staged in Prague in 1921. The title factory advertises its models as “The Cheapest Workforce You Can Get.” Robot labor unrest evolves into revolt. Robots enslave and exterminate people.

Brigitte Helm in “Metropolis.”

Brigitte Helm in “Metropolis.”

In Fritz Lang’s 1927 film “Metropolis,” an overlord subverts an uprising of enslaved subterranean workers by substituting their peaceable leader Maria (Brigitte Helm in both roles) with a robot look-alike provocateur who shouts: “Kill them — the machines — !!” Her inventor exults: “She is the most perfect and most obedient tool which mankind ever possessed!”

The white-collar men of Stepford, Connecticut, turn their wives into docile domestic robots in the 1975 film “The Stepford Wives,” directed by Bryan Forbes and remade in 2004 by Frank Oz.

Detroit’s human cops in Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 film “Robocop” vote to strike over a Omni Consumer Products contract for robotic cops. As in “CHAPPiE” and other near-future and far-future robot films, corporate and criminal evil reigns. In Blomkamp’s “District 9,” the hero (Sharlto Copley again) evades Nigerian gangs and Multi-National United, “the second largest weapons manufacturer in the world.” Weaponized aliens take the place of weaponized robots in this sci-film from 2009.

Criminals stealing robots can be found back in the 1921 Italian film “The Mechanical Man” by Andre Deed. A villainess kidnaps the niece of an inventor to access his robot blueprints. The resulting machine is sent on a crime spree, stopped only by a second robot. Such robot-on-robot smackdowns recur in “Robocop” and “Terminator” sequels, as in “CHAPPiE.”

Capitalizing on man-made, man-like creatures goes back to Pinocchio, a serialized tale for children that Carlo Lorenzini began in 1881. A hunk of talking wood fated to serve as a table leg is instead carved into a boy figure. “I will make a puppet who can dance, and fence, and make daredevil leaps, and then we shall travel the world, seeking our wine and bread,” says Geppetto.

A mecha-carnival impresario in Stephen Spielberg’s 2001 film “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” likewise sees profit in displaying a synthetic kid. David (Haley Joel Osment), a prototype designed at Cybertronics, dearly wishes to be a real boy. Here is how robot tales channel our own wonder about what our creator intends we do before our batteries run down.

The evil engineer in “Endhiran” (“The Robot”) reprograms a lovestruck android with a one zettabyte memory. It’s a scheme to sell a hundred models to a German arms dealer with terrorist clients. But in this 2010 Indian film by Shankar Shanmugham, the inventor never made his prototype for profit. He wanted to give it to the army to defend India. Unfortunately, the robot failed his military audition by spouting romantic similes: his beloved’s forehead is like “a slice of the silver moon” and her lips are like “a sleeping zebra.”Machines thinking they can think present their own problems. “I know what consciousness is,” claims Chappie. Doubting he could only trust his ability to doubt, French philosopher Renee Descartes speculated in 1641: “Therefore, I will suppose that, not God who is the source of truth, but some evil mind who is all-powerful and cunning has devoted all their energies to deceiving me.”Replicants in Ridley Scott’s 1982 film “Blade Runner” already know they are machines. These escaped slave rebels have no time for Descartes’ radically paranoid thought-experiment. Their existential plight is underscored by their preset expiration dates, as they hunt down their makers at the Tyrell Corp. that hypes its androids as “more human than human.”“The human body is a machine which winds its own springs,” philosophized Julien Offray de La Mettrie in 1747. “It is the living image of perpetual motion.” Watching one’s inner wheels turn is what is known as self-knowledge in philosophy circles. Self-consciousness is supposedly a trait unique to our species.

In sci-films, though, evolved engineering makes machines anti-human. By a perverse logic of unforeseen consequences, we design super-computers to “serve and protect” us but they take their instructions too far. The Global Digital Defense Network built by Cyberdyne Systems morphs into the “self-aware” entity Skynet in the “Terminator” films. It calculates that people imperil our planet. Species-cide is the technical solution.

“I, Robot,” Alex Proyas’ 2004 film set in 2035 Chicago, presents a comparable if less dire prospect. U.S. Robotics, the leading vendor of everyday robots for the masses, builds an uber-computer with Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence.

Using an affectless female voice V.I.K.I. explains itself to its makers: “You charge us with your safekeeping, yet despite our best efforts, your countries wage wars, you toxify your Earth and pursue ever more imaginative means of self-destruction. You cannot be trusted with your own survival. … To protect humanity, some humans must be sacrificed. To ensure your future, some freedoms must be surrendered. We robots will ensure mankind’s continued existence. You are so like children, we must save you from yourself.”

What happens when a script equips a human, all-too-human character with a super-consciousness? The takeaway from sci-fi films with that theme — “The Lazarus Effect,” “Lucy,” “Limitless” and “The Lawnmower Man,” to list a handful — is the unsettling idea that artificially increased intelligence is wrong. For mankind — and our machines.

Are bigger brains really bad for us? That does not compute.

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