“These articulated machines, by some sort of fluke of circuitry or the beginnings of artificial intelligence, were as emotional as any of the other characters,” said Bill Irwin, the actor behind TARS.
For decades, literature and film have explored artificial intelligence. The modern term “robots” can be traced to R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), a 1921 play by Czech author Karel Čapek. In the original Czech, robota means “forced labor”; derived from the more general rab (“slave”), robota refers specifically to feudal serfdom. The humans in R.U.R. see robots as appliances, not life forms.
In the years since, many other works have examined robots as a sub-human proletariat, including Metropolis; Into the Slave Nebula; I, Robot; 2001: A Space Odyssey; Blade Runner; Battlestar Galactica; Chappie; and Automata. The robots’ human oppressors are not purposefully cruel; in fact, in dehumanizing artificial life, mankind minimizes its own innovation. It ignores its glory to preserve God as creator.
Treating robots as “things” prevents constructive socialization. There is no foundation of love or understanding. All they learn from their makers is how to perpetrate violence to control the world around them. And so, in these works, robots inevitably rise up. In R.U.R., only one human being survives the revolution. The robots spare him because “he works with his hands.” This shared functionality is their only connection point to the human experience.
Other works, such as Star Trek: The Next Generation, are far less bleak about human perception. While the android Commander Data dreams of becoming human, his crewmates treat him as such already. In the episode “Measure of a Man,” Captain Picard makes a passionate case for Data’s sentience when scientists argue that he is “Starfleet property.” This progressive view of articulated machines as sovereign persons is also present in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.
“I [found] fascinating this notion of, ‘What if the most human characters were the non-human ones?'” mused co-writer Jonathan Nolan. “They’re just as marooned in the moment as anyone else. They’re literally military surplus.”
CASE and TARS were constructed in war time to serve the U.S. military. However, unlike drones, they weren’t seen as dispensable weapons. They were designed as personnel, given feelings to blend in with human units. This choice in their engineering made it easy to treat them as living, breathing beings.
It’s true that they have “settings” that modify certain behavior. But is this so different from the way human conduct is modified?
Military order requires that soldiers conform to specifications. They must rigidly adhere to a strict set of rules. Human soldiers are programmed to be obedient through repetition, reward, and punishment. Machine soldiers (CASE and TARS) have different mechanisms, but the end result is the same.
These modifications aren’t confined to military life. As the 1942 Army Field Manual says: “Discipline should not be something new to you, for you have been disciplined all your life.” When I was a kid, my sister got a bad haircut. In telling me to compliment it, my mom adjusted my “honesty parameter.” When my friend swears me to secrecy, he’s adjusting my “discretion setting.” The only difference between human and machine settings is that ours are more faulty.
Of the two machines, CASE is “softer,” according to Irwin. This is logical. Like humans, CASE’s and TARS’ experiences shaped their personalities. Both joined NASA following their military careers; however, CASE spent 10 years idling in orbit while TARS worked closely with human colleagues. This makes it challenging for CASE to integrate into the crew of the Endurance. It takes Cooper’s persistence to bring him out of his shell.
Compare CASE’s shyness, and the way he slowly warms up to Cooper, to the immediate rapport TARS has with the crew. Consider that CASE is skeptical of Cooper’s plan to dock, while TARS is all in. Their identities are not defined by percentages but by unique experiences and personal bonds.
These are two fascinating characters—and we’ve only scratched the surface. Stay tuned to the “Articulated Machines” series as we further explore their personal journeys.