A Really Awesome Fan Theory About Robby the Robot

There’s a scene in Forbidden Planet where Robby the Robot meets up with the ship’s cook from the C-57-D to deliver 480 pint bottles of Kansas City bourbon, which Robby synthesized at the cook’s request. The delighted cook swallows a mouthful, coughs, splutters, and chokes out the words, “It’s smooth, too!” Overcome by gratitude, he adds, “Robby, I ain’t never gonna forget this. Any time you’re hard up for lube oil, let me know.”

Then they both hear a strange noise, a high-pitched insectile hum, quiet but ominous, and getting louder. The cook asks Robby, “What’s up? Somebody coming this way?”

Robby’s head swivels slowly and thoughtfully to the side, toward the viewer. “No, sir,” he replies. “Nothing coming this way.”

robby and cook

But something is coming, and Robby knows better than anyone what it is. Why does he keep quiet? He isn’t acting on orders from Morbius, because Morbius himself doesn’t know the truth about the monster. Something more than Asimov’s Laws of Robotics is at work here. This is a robot keeping his own counsel and acting as he thinks best.

“Only a rational creature is capable of deliberate deceit.” Dr. Merrinoe says this in The Invisible Boy when asked if the supercomputer could be lying to him. Robby says the same thing near the end of that film. But the supercomputer is capable of it, and so is Robby.

I keep coming back to the subject of this robot. I’ve already written about him here, here, here, and here, and evidently I’m not done yet. There is so much about him that doesn’t quite add up, so many minute apparent inconsistencies throughout Forbidden Planet and The Invisible Boy. But they’re not sloppy inconsistencies; there is a pattern, an internal logic being respected. Important questions about the nature of the robot are never resolved and often not asked, merely implied, and left hanging for us to do with what we will.

Consider Robby’s interaction with Alta. When she hastily summons him away from an oil job, he asks, “And what is it you require this time, Miss Alta?” She says she wants him to make her a new dress. He replies, “Again?”

robby and alta

That’s an awful lot of subtext for an emotionless machine. Robby doesn’t come off as truly impatient; he’s like a gruff, affectionate uncle. And Alta responds just as a beloved niece would, with dimples and wheedling charm. This is a game they play and enjoy together.

And consider what happens after Robby delivers the bourbon. The monster breaks through the force field around the ship and kills the ship’s chief, and the next day, Commander Adams questions the cook. He knows now that the cook was let out of the force field perimeter, contrary to orders, and that he returned drunk. (Interestingly, the cook reports that despite drinking four pints of bourbon the night before, he has no hangover. Could Robby have synthesized hangover-free bourbon in meticulous fulfillment of Law 1?)

The cook says he was gone during the murder, drinking with Robby; he even goes so far as to say Robby talked him into it. “Him and me, we kind of got to toasting each other’s good health…just for cordial interplanetary relations, you understand.” We have only the cook’s word for this, but let’s assume he’s telling the truth, that the two of them drank together at Robby’s suggestion. What does that mean? We know Robby can consume alcohol in a fashion; earlier we saw him pour the better part of a pint of the cook’s original supply of bourbon into a mouth-like aperture to analyze it for synthesis. But Robby as drinking buddy is a strain on the imagination. Could Robby have been providing himself an alibi? It’s true that after hearing that Robby and the cook were together when the chief was killed, Adams no longer considers the robot a suspect, and the Third Law would require Robby to protect himself as long as he can do so without harming humans or disobeying a human’s commands. But a robot strong enough to carry ten tons of lead shielding in one hand probably doesn’t need to concern himself with what the crew of the C-57-D can do to him, and Morbius has plenty of thermonuclear reactors back at the compound in case things get dicey. An alibi is not something Robby needs.

robby lead shielding

What if the robot is protecting the cook by preventing him from going back to the base while the monster is there? There’s no way Robby can save all the ship’s crew; the ship’s weapons aren’t enough to stop the monster, and even Robby himself, strong as he is, would be no match for a creature that is made of solid nuclear material, is dense enough to survive three billion electron volts, and is capable of renewing its molecular structure from one microsecond to the next.

id monster

And has a spiffy little Van Dyke beard just like Morbius!

But Robby can protect the cook. And he does—circumspectly, without telling the cook there’s any danger, because telling him wouldn’t do any good and would cause trouble for Morbius. As the later Big Reveal makes clear, Robby is the only who knew the true nature of the monster all along. He has had a delicate situation to balance: besides obeying Morbius (Law 2) and not allowing harm to humans (Law 1), he appears to have been protecting Morbius’s reputation, or perhaps shielding him from a horrifying truth. He has been making judgment calls, doing his best with difficult circumstances. Perhaps the decision isn’t even a conscious one at all. Is it possible that Robby himself has a subconscious?

One form of dramatic irony occurs when the viewer knows things that the characters don’t. Such is the case here. Robby is far more than the sum of his parts; the viewer knows this, but the human characters never really figure it out. Even Morbius, with his Krell-enhanced intellect, doesn’t comprehend the truth about the robot he “tinkered together.” The day Adams and two of his officers meet Robby for the first time, Morbius tells them, “Don’t attribute feeling to him, gentlemen. Robby is simply a tool.” No. He is not. He is a personality.

The last we see of Robby on Forbidden Planet, he is headed to Earth, working the astrogation deck aboard the C-57-D. There is genuine enthusiasm in his “Aye, aye, Skipper!” He has lost his master and his home, but he has a new job, crewmates, and adventure awaiting him. His future looks bright.

robby astrogator

But the next we see of him—“next” in terms of his personal timeline—he’s lying in pieces in a 1950s mathematics institute, his detached head resting on a shelf, covered with cobwebs. A photo hangs nearby, thumbtacked to a shelf. It shows Robby emerging from a starship, arms raised triumphantly, being met by crowds of people. It’s labeled Chicago Spaceport, March 16, 2309.

So what happened in between? How did Robby go from respected astrogator to sad forgotten derelict? Merrinoe gives us a few clues, though he himself seems unaware of the implications (more dramatic irony). He speaks of a former director of the institute, Dr. Greenhill, who “lost his marbles” after retirement and claimed he’d built a working time machine and brought Robby back from the future. Dr. Merrinoe is dismissive of both Greenhill and the robot; he says no one at the institute could ever get Robby to work. Commander Adams considered Robby a marvel in the 23rd century; Dr. Merrinoe calls him “a scientific joke.”

robby in pieces

Merrinoe doesn’t seem to be concealing anything here. He doesn’t mind letting Timmie play with the robot, and when Timmie gets Robby running, Merrinoe doesn’t have a problem with that either (in fact, he is amusingly nonchalant about his ten-year-old son’s sudden electronic genius). But he doesn’t know the truth.

Now consider the supercomputer in The Invisible Boy. Representing “the sum total of human knowledge, constantly being revised and brought up to date,” the computer is far more powerful than any actual 1950s computer. Of course, that’s only to be expected; this wouldn’t have been much of a film if the computer had been typical of the era—like the ENIAC of 1946, which had a “clock speed” of 100 kHz, or one tenth of a MHz.

But it did help build the hydrogen bomb, so there's that.

But it did help build the hydrogen bomb, so there’s that.

But maybe there’s more to it than sci-fi narrative license. Even Robby seems awestruck by the computer, and Robby was designed and put together by a 24th-century brainiac with an artificially enhanced intellect who had a huge lab and the technology and wisdom of an enormously advanced alien civilization. This computer gives advice on parenting, child development, and national defense, always answering in ways that advance its own agenda. In fact, Merrinoe eventually realizes the computer has been suggesting changes to its own design for decades—modifications to its forebrain, whose functions (if it’s anything like a human forebrain) include creativity, rational decision-making, goal-setting, social judgment, and memory.

Shown: cerebrum glasstubum.

Shown: cerebrum glasstubum

It appears that the computer achieved rationality deliberately, by bringing about changes that enabled personality to take hold. But how could it do that, or even want to do that, without already having some degree of personality? By suggesting the changes, it acted deceitfully; Merrinoe speaks of its “patient slyness.” But as Robby and Merrinoe both remind us, only a rational being is capable of deliberate deceit. So was the computer rational before it suggested the changes? And if so, why would it need the changes to be made? Perhaps the rationality was there all along and the changes merely expanded the computer’s intellect. But in that case, where did the rationality come from?

And how about Robby? After lying, playing, and protecting his way through Forbidden Planet, he does another remarkable thing in The Invisible Boy: he refuses to hurt Timmie after the supercomputer orders him to. By this time the computer has overridden Robby’s basic directive (the one that keeps him from hurting people) and established a mind-control link with him. We’ve seen Robby obey the computer’s orders to nab scientists and military personnel and implant them with mind-control devices. But when the computer says to gouge out Timmie’s eyeballs, Robby freezes up in a Manchurian candidate-style internal struggle.

robot timmie eyes

Imagine the robot’s arms convulsively twitching.

How does Robby do this? How can he thwart his own programming? True, it’s not his original programming, but the supercomputer is smart enough to make a good job of the rewrite.

I see a couple of possibilities here. Way back at the opening of Forbidden Planet, almost three hundred years in the linear future and an unknown interval in Robby’s personal past, Alta Morbius had lived her entire life on Altair 4, with only her father, some animals, and Robby for companions. Robby helped raise Alta. He has a history of caring for a child, and he has built up habits of patience and nurture and dry robotic playfulness. Surely Robby’s interaction with Timmie revives memories of Alta’s childhood. Would it be fair to suppose that long patterns of habit contribute to character in a robot, as they do in a person? Maybe the supercomputer’s order to hurt Timmie, basic directive or no, is too much of a departure from Robby’s established character.

But even that explanation falls short. Habit helps determine character, but it can be thrown off in a moment for the right incentive. Could it be that Robby is acting out of free will? I think it must be.

In that case, we’re back to the earlier question about the supercomputer. Where does all this rationality and intentionality and free will—this personhood—come from? That question can’t be fully answered. We are basically talking about the spark of life here, and although I would like to go off on a wild and largely irrelevant tangent about the making of the Dwarves by Aulë the Smith in The Silmarillion, so far I am resisting admirably. Suffice it to say that while we might reasonably point out that Robby’s maker had access to the learning and technology of the fabulously advanced Krell, ultimately the origin of the spark remains a mystery, and is meant to.

krell thermonuclear generators

But the origin of the supercomputer’s spark is less mysterious. To find it, we will piece together events that must or might have happened in between Forbidden Planet and The Invisible Boy.

The most pressing question about that time period is, how did Robby end up dismantled at the institute? Greenhill’s photo shows him making it back to Earth from Altair 4 in one piece. What happened next?

What happened next is that at some point, either in the 24th century or back in the 20th, some Earth scientists got hold of Robby, took him apart, and started reverse-engineering the heck out of him. Greenhill may or may not have been part of this. I tend to think Robby was already dismantled before Greenhill took him to the past, because no one in the 20th century was able to get him back together, and if Greenhill had taken him apart he ought to know how to reverse the process, but other interpretations are possible. I can’t help but think of Gandalf telling Saruman, “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

If you're patient, you'll usually find it's possible to legitimately bring in Tolkien at some point.

If you’re patient, you’ll usually find it’s possible to legitimately bring in Tolkien at some point.

Greenhill makes it back to the 20th century and takes Robby to the institute, and for some reason—maybe a disagreement over the ethics of how to deal with Robby?—the institute takes Robby and discredits Greenhill, passing him off as a washed-out nut job. The staff at the institute is unable to get Robby together again, but they learn much from studying his innards, and with that knowledge they build the supercomputer. The supercomputer is Robby’s technological descendant.

See the resemblance?

See the resemblance?

We know the computer is at least twenty-nine years old, so it was built in 1928 at the latest. Merrinoe is too young to have been involved, which would explain his lack of enthusiasm for the robot; he doesn’t know Robby really is from the future.

So the computer was engineered from Robby, who for whatever reason already had personhood. The computer’s personhood was inherited! Robby doesn’t know this—he was in pieces at the time—but the computer knows. It was the computer that gave Timmie the idea, and the ability, to get the robot running again. The computer needed Robby to be its hands and feet in the world of men; the similarity of their interfaces made communication simple.

This kind of port compatibility can’t be accidental. USB wasn’t even a thing until 1995.

This kind of port compatibility can’t be accidental. USB wasn’t even a thing until 1995.

The computer overrides Robby’s basic directive, changes his programming, and basically makes a minion of him for a while. But when the computer tells Robby to hurt Timmie, things come to a grinding halt. Earlier Robby said of the computer, “It is very great. It is beyond me.” That may be, but Robby is older and wiser. The computer doesn’t know the Deeper Magic, so to speak.

Robby refuses to do the computer’s bidding, his basic directive gets reinstated, and all the drone-people get their mind-control gadgets removed, allowing the balance of power to shift back to Merrinoe. But the computer has one more trick up its console. As Merrinoe is about to destroy it with an axe, the computer starts up a display of flashing lights. It puts Merrinoe in a hypnotic trance, as it did earlier to Timmie, and seduces him with promises of dazzling, mind-blowing knowledge. Then, with Timmie and Merrinoe both helpless, it tells Robby to strike them both down so that it might rise again to dominate not only humanity but all life on earth and throughout the universe. Instead, the robot smashes the computer right in the experimental feedback tubes!

Take that, evil megalomaniacal supercomputer!

Take that, evil megalomaniacal supercomputer!

No one told Robby to do that, and the computer just told him to do something completely different. This time Robby isn’t just refraining from following a bad command; he’s taking positive action. He’s not just a person, but a proactive and well-realized one.

None of this theory is essential to the plot of either movie, but it holds together well and fits the internal logic of both, while adding an extra layer of depth to the stories—which, by the way, were written by the same screenwriter, Cyril Hume. The Invisible Boy actually points us in this direction with a couple of lines of easily forgotten dialogue. Merrinoe has been explaining about Greenhill and his wacky time-travel story. Timmie suddenly looks thoughtful and actually stands up from his chair to say, “But if somebody did go to the future, and learned something there, and then came back out, wouldn’t that change now?”

Merrinoe ponders this, then says, “Well, I guess it would at that. Even old Greenhill never thought of that one.”

Part of me thinks, Come on, Merrinoe, keep up. This is just a basic time-travel paradox here. Then again, why does the possibility have to be mentioned at all? It’s not as if wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff becomes a real issue with the plot; in fact, the time travel is never mentioned again. But there it is, mentioned in a way that gives point to the possibility, but not dwelt on long enough to bog down the story. Viewers are invited to think the thing through if they wish.

Come to think of it, what else would change about now, if the U.S. had access to Krell-inspired tech in the midst of the Cold War? The computer is destroyed at the end of The Invisible Boy, but Robby is still around, and Merrinoe plans to build another computer. How will that affect the future, which is Robby’s past? What will change about the time period of Forbidden Planet? Will the C-57-D ever take off at all? How about the Bellerephon, the ship that took the original colony to Altair 4? What will happen to Morbius and Alta and Adams? Will they even be born? Will Robby ever get made? What will happen and not happen in the alternate reality initiated by that unseen, unknown, time-traveling Dr. Greenhill?

It isn’t often that a movie generates this many questions, suppositions, and additional questions. Well done, Mr. Hume!

The “I” in AI

Back in the seventies, my dad managed the local branch of a national lumber company. The building had a computer that took up an entire room. To communicate with it, you punched little slots into cards which were then manually fed into the computer’s maw. It lived alone in its lair, giving off a constant whirring racket. And when it broke down, the company had to fly in a computer guy from out of state, and this guy was revered like some kind of swami. And when that guy couldn’t fix it, they flew in another guy. I think it ended up being a total of three or four guys before the problem was fixed, and each time a new one appeared the hierarchy shifted and an erstwhile big genius got relegated to getting coffee.

It was a weird decade.

It was a weird decade.

I thought about that computer while watching The Invisible Boy. This film, released in 1957, features a sentient supercomputer that wants to rule the world. The computer takes up not one but two large rooms, with an additional 5300 cubic yards of microtransistors overhead and a wall of glass tubes connected to feedback units. The main console has huge panels filled with flashing lights, switches, levers, and dials. According to Dr. Merrinoe, its operator, this computer represents “the sum total of human knowledge, constantly being revised and brought up to date.”

Well! That probably makes it more powerful than the computer at my dad’s office, let alone any real-life 1950s computers. One 1959 model with the catchy name of PDP-1 stored data on those punched cards and had a memory of 9 kilobytes, which is less than 10% of what might be used today to store one photo of average size. And the 1970s computer at my dad’s office had less processing power than a graphing calculator. (I guess. Actually I kind of pulled that last bit out of the air. When I asked a friend in the tech industry for a valid point of comparison, he replied that in terms of processing, memory, and static storage, modern computers are exponentially larger than 1950s counterparts to such a degree that he couldn’t even think of a metaphor.)

The idea of a piece of tech becoming sentient and turning on its makers is one we’ve all seen explored lots of times in story form—Hal, Skynet, Ultron, replicants, the Omnidroid, the Machines. My introduction to the concept was probably Tron. But here it is in a movie made way back in 1957. Clearly our uneasiness with artificial intelligence has a long history.

And no wonder. Computers have been bound up with national defense right from the get-go. In 1950, after President Truman green-lit plans to develop a hydrogen bomb, atomic scientists needed a way to work mathematical calculations of enormous complexity, beyond the capabilities of mechanical calculators. A new machine based on vacuum tubes was put to work on the job, and later improvements to such machines led to the development of computers. (This strikes me a bit like inventing calculus so you can study planetary motion, as Sir Isaac Newton reportedly did. These math guys are awfully thorough.)

In the 1950s American mind, then, computers were inextricably linked to the hydrogen bomb. And the hydrogen bomb was more destructive than the atomic bomb by an order of magnitude of…a lot. Sorry I can’t be more precise. I read about the difference between fission and fusion but I’m still a little fuzzy on the details.

But although I’m weak on nuclear physics, I’m fairly quick with semiotics, and I did pick up on something noteworthy while researching the H-bomb. Check out these images.

implosion nucler weaponone-point safety testU.S. Swan deviceSwedish_Atomic_Bomb

Now take a gander at the piece of hardware crowning the supercomputer in The Invisible Boy.

invisible boy computer eyes

Did you see them? Those freaky eyeballs drawn onto the glass dome for who knows what deranged and misguided purpose? They look like cross sections of nuclear bombs! (The dome itself looks an awful lot like Robby the Robot’s head, but more of that in a later post.)

The concept of artificial intelligence is far older than computers, reaching back to antiquity. Like the computers of the 1950s, the artificially intelligent beings of mythology were usually built with defense in mind. (Interestingly, one of the non-defense ones, Galatea, started off as an ivory statue that Pygmalion made and fell in love with. So the still-popular idea of artificial intelligence as romantic partner has a long history as well.) Hephaestus, Greek god of blacksmiths, craftsmen, and metallurgy, built Talos, a walking, thinking bronze statue designed to defend the isle of Crete, which Talos did by patrolling the shores and throwing rocks at pirates and invaders. (Hephaestus also built some metal automata to serve him in his workshop, an early example of AI’s industrial applications.)

And let’s not forget the Golem—or golems, as there are many accounts of them in Jewish folklore. The name “golem” is derived from a Hebrew word for unformed material or uncultivated person. Like Adam, all golems are shaped from clay, but unlike Adam a man-made golem will never be more than a shadow of a living being created by God. The makers of golems are wise and holy people, often rabbis. Interestingly, golems are mute, but written language is the means of bringing them to “life”: any one of the Names of God, called a shem, is written on a slip of paper and inserted into the golem’s mouth, or inscribed directly onto its forehead. To shut the golem down, the operator removes the paper or rubs out one of the letters on the forehead, invalidating the shem.

Golem legends are numerous and fascinating and often associated with actual historical figures. The most famous golem is the one of Prague, supposedly created by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel. Like Talos, and the supercomputer in The Invisible Boy, the Golem of Prague was made for defense. Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor from 1576 to 1612, had threatened to kill or exile all the Jews of the city, so Rabbi Loew made the Golem, whose powers included making himself invisible and summoning the spirits of the dead.

Like all golem stories, this one turns sour at the end. In one version of the story, the Golem desecrates the Sabbath when Rabbi Loew forgets to remove the shem in time; in another, he falls in love, is rejected, and goes on a violent rampage à la Bride of Frankenstein. In other golem accounts, the creatures crush or scar their makers, become surly and uncooperative, or take instructions too literally. In some cases the maker has second thoughts and deactivates the golem before it can do any harm. All the accounts conclude with the golems either disintegrated back to dust, or dismantled and stored in an attic somewhere.

 

talos golem robby

Talos, the Golem, and Robby the Robot

Frankenstein’s monster is a type of artificial intelligence. So is the One Ring, and so is Gurthang, the sword carried by Túrin Turambar in The Children of Húrin. In all these cases, the AI is closely identified with its master (the Elves actually call Túrin and Gurthang by the same name, Mormegil, or Black Sword), and the master is guilty of great hubris in making or wielding the instrument. He knows what he’s doing is problematic at best, but he does it anyway, and the instrument causes a lot of destruction and grief. And in the end, it brings about its master’s death.

Stories in which the sentience of an artificially intelligent being is treated as a positive thing exist, but they’re not as common, and when they do occur there’s still the possibility of trouble. Offhand I can think of Robby the Robot, Data (though Lore kind of cancels him out), and J.A.R.V.I.S., who I understand is going to do some awesome stuff in the next Avengers movie. And WALL·E and EVE. But our prevailing feeling toward artificial intelligence is one of deep unease.

Why? For the same reason people in the Matrix won’t accept an idyllic existence as reality and David Aames keeps messing up his lucid dream: because we know ourselves and our deserts. No matter how hard we try to smother the knowledge, it keeps rising up again, pointing an accusing finger. We are so corrupt that even our best actions have mixed motives.

As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: there is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one. Their throat is an open sepulcher; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips: whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood: destruction and misery are in their ways: and the way of peace have they not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.

~Romans 3:10-18

We can’t escape ourselves. And when we make a powerful tool to serve us—a tool with potential personhood, no less—we worry. What are we going to do with it? Will we use it wisely? Will we use it to extort and oppress? Or will we just get lazy and let it do all the work for us, leaving ourselves vulnerable to tyrannical takeover? And what will it do with us? Will it foul up its orders by taking instructions too literally, like the Golem, or refusing to stop, like the broom in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice? Will it fall into the wrong hands and be used against us? Will it develop a will of its own and seek to dominate us?

Fear of AI is fear of ourselves, of what our darkest impulses could accomplish with vast power and no accountability. We have begotten it; how can it escape the corruption that is bound up in our every cell? We do well to tremble.