Robots vs. androids in fiction (go robots!)

Among the characters in my new novel is a collective of former package-delivery drones that, after a war, evolved themselves into a taxi service for their damaged city.
From the earliest drafts, I saw them as small flying saucers, with only a central trunk/harness to carry goods or a seated cross-legged person. It took a little time before I saw the plot and character possibilities of robots without hands or appendages. It meant that they had continued to evolve themselves to depend on people, both as customers and even as mechanics, like Thomas the Tank Engine.
I also gave them a limited vocabulary of green and red lights, suitable for bargaining over fares, but akin to the radiation-wounded Christopher Pike on old Star Trek. This made for a stranger, more labored interaction, but one familiar to anyone who has set a digital device.
It also made it easier for the taxibots credibly to be taken for granted by the people around them while they — well, you’ll read it one day. 🙂
This is a less common take on manufactured beings. Mostly in our fictions we go right to androids, robots in the shape of people — especially as characters. The exceptions of Star Wars‘s charming R2-D2 and Battestar Galactica‘s fearsome Cylon raiders prove the rule even in their own universes.
Of course, until very recently, human acting was easier and cheaper than computer animation. Still, the idea of the manufactured being as a replacement for humans, from love objects to dominant intelligences, has fascinated and worried us since ancient times. As a story source, it’s still going strong (e.g., the movie Chappie) but it’s maybe not the freshest place to look.
Compared to the android, the robot seems less explored, stranger, and more likely. I also think it might express new anxieties, better than the Terminator or the Cybermen or the Borg. We worry a lot about being supplanted by robots. Maybe we need a way to worry about how we’ll coexist with them, when they don’t look human and act ever more independently of us.
After all, the first robot vacuum isn’t an android pushing a handle – it’s a little rolling disk. One day, you’ll have several, and when you talk to one, it will tell the others…


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