'Star Wars: Episode VII' Sidekick BB-8 Is Adorable, But When Did We Start Finding Robots Cute?
The great visionaries of science fiction yore spoke ominously of this era. The era when we’d first come to welcome the artificially intelligent into our homes, into our lives, into our families. The day when we’d let our guard down just enough, blinded by the majesties of unprecedented technology, to unwittingly usher in a new era of android dominance over we feeble organic. Just one thing: Isaac Asimov and company never said that our robots would be so damn adorable. Such a guaranteed fan favorite was BB-8 that Disney teamed with toy company Sphero to release a line BB-8 toys so that everyone can have these adorable droids for home use: copiloting your X-wings, transmitting dire messages to your neighborhood hermits, and — top priority — messing with your cats.
September 4 — known contemporaneously as “Force Friday” (and perhaps retroactively as “The Beginning of the End”) — bestowed upon those many Earth humans not bound by the tenets of frugality a new fascination: BB-8, a pintsized replication of the spherical droid first spotted whizzing across desert terrain in the initial trailer for Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. Composed of a rounded body and a head bearing likeness to that of the franchise’s automated kingpin, R2-D2, the latest Lucasfilms sidekick was an instant victor of every Star Wars devotee’s heart.
See, the cats know what we don’t: That these robots are smarter, more ambitious, and more malevolent than we’d like to believe. It isn’t as though humankind is untested in its technophobia. For ages, we were depicting cyborgs as soulless enemies driven by the urges to kill and enslave. This reputation surrounded the automated population from the get-go. The 1921 Italian silent film L’Uomo Meccanico depicts a tremendous robot programmed to commit crimes and employ violence. The far more famous Metropolis came six years later, introducing a robotic woman built and designed in the name of revenge.
Such a trend carried throughout the extant history of big screen science fiction. Though diverse in form and ethos, the androids of The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Stepford Wives, Blade Runner, I, Robot, and dozens upon dozens of entries among them, were universally draped in menace. But, somewhere along the line, a new movement began to run parallel to this symphony of electronic horror. A particular subset of the robot race took on a new aesthetic, a new demeanor, and a new place in our world. They all got cute.
Today, it’s not uncommon to see a robot of the BB-8 variety: a plucky, adorable, instantaneously empathetic little sprite meant to invoke the same instinctual affections we reserve for chocolate lab puppies. Since the era of Omnibots and 2-XLs, both admittedly influenced by the popularity of R2 himself, the cute robot has become just as prevalent as the menacing horror. In the past few years alone, we’ve seen this form undertake the likes of Big Hero 6, Earth to Echo, Moon, ROBOTS, adaptations of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Astro Boy, and Wall-E.
Has humanity’s fear of the approaching singularity curbed? Hardly. We still clamor about the possibility of losing total control to the automatons — a fear augmented by recent robo-victories over the Turing test. Is this infantilization of the cyborg race simply a means of combating this apprehension? Perhaps, as pop culture has been employed toward the end of dissolving the powers of intimidation many times before. Might we be heading down a dangerous path in our induction of BB-8s and the like into our households and hearts? If sci-fi of eras past has taught us anything, then absolutely.
But come on. They’re just so damn adorable.