In recent years, the robotics field has made enormous strides: iRobot has recently sold off its defense and security division to focus on the growing home market for Robotics, and Alphabet’s Boston Dynamics has been making the rounds of the internet with their Atlas Robot. Robots are in the home, and will be here to stay.
This is something that science fiction has been predicting for as long as it’s been around. From the genre’s earliest robots, such as Tik Tok from the world of Oz, to BB-8 from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, we’ve been imagining facsimile individuals that exist alongside people.
Over the course of that history, we’ve imagined how they’ll interact with families. Here’s a small handful of notable robots who were part of a family:
1 - Andrew Martin, The Bicentennial Man, Isaac Asimov
Ignore the Robin Williams film: Isaac Asimov’s brilliant novella The Bicentennial Man (which the film is loosely based on), charts the life of an NDR robot after it was purchased by the Martin family. They named him Andrew, and over two centuries, he transitions from being a robot to a person.
Andrew’s story is an interesting one, because it’s the epitome of how we anthropomorphize objects such as robots, imagining them to be like humans. Andrew starts its life as a machine, and ends his life declared a human, right before he dies.
The Bicentennial Man is at its heart, the yearning of a robot to become part of a family, first as part of the Martins, but then, a larger one: the larger human family.
2 - | CHAPPiE
In Neill Blomkamp’s 2015 film CHAPPiE, a robotics scientist working in South Africa conducts an unauthorized experiment while working for a defense contractor. He creates true artificial intelligence, placed in the body of a discarded Scout robot.
The robot is kidnapped and activated, and is awakened with the intellect of a child. "Raised" in a quasi-family environment of criminals, it displays an unusual curiosity and is disturbed by the darker realities and complex morals of its surroundings.
Chappie is an interesting robot, and its journey from innocent to adult mirrors that of a child growing up and coming to terms with the world we live in.
3 | David, A.I. Artificial Intelligence / Supertoys Last All Summer Long
This is another example of a point where the book is better than the film, but each iteration of David is an interesting one. At their core, they are about the same thing: the love of a child for its mother. In this case, the child is a robot.
In the film, David has been brought in to the family after a tragic accident, while in the book, he is the only option for a family in an overcrowded world. In each, David is replaced by a real child.
In many ways, this once again goes towards the concept of anthropomorphizing an object explicitly designed to do just that: in this case, it is discarded once it's no longer needed. Good for the family, but with devastating consequences for the robot, which still yearns for its mother.
4 | Helen O'Loy
Lester del Rey’s story of a robot falling in love with a man first appeared in Astounding Science Fiction’s December 1938 edition. It’s an extremely problematic story that carries with it some outdated gender roles, but it does prove to be an interesting example of robots in families.
In the story, two men modify a household robot, and it begins to develop emotions. They name it Helen of Alloy – Helen O’Loy, and it slowly begins to appear more and more human. On one hand, it’s a story of a man designing an overly idealized wife, built to worship its owner/lover.
While the story is problematic, it serves as a very good warning for how robots can be utilized, and how gender roles can be applied to artificial humans. The results can reveal some harmful attitudes that can persist into familial units, where they can have devastating consequences.
5 | Marco and Jax, The Lifecycle of Software Objects, Ted Chiang
The cover flap of Ted Chiang’s brilliant novella The Lifecycle of Software Objects cites Alan Turing, who muses that the best way to raise an artificial intelligence might be to raise one as though it were a child, from the first building blocks of intelligence all the way to adulthood.
This is a complicated, dark story, one that follows a designed named Ava as she helps her company, Blue Gamma, create an AI. Jax and Marco are child-like digients (robots with AIs), and over the course of two decades, their personalities grow, based on their environments.
Raising a child of my own, there’s a lot of parallels here as Jax and Marco grow and develop complicated personalities, and a new desire for independence and even a loss of innocence. It’s an interesting, and difficult, but ultimately rewarding read that takes on new meaning as a parent.
6 | Robbie, "Robbie," Isaac Asimov
The lead story in Asimov’s famous collection of robot stories, I, Robot, "Robbie" is a story about technophobia and how children can sometimes be far more accepting of the world than adults.
In this story, the Weston family owns an RB series robot nicknamed Robbie. Their daughter, Gloria, grows firmly attached to the robot, and the family sends it away to the city, away from their daughter. Gloria is distraught, and when they take a trip to the city, Gloria is almost killed by a car, saved only by Robbie, who happens to be nearby.
Children anthropomorphize objects far more easily than adults will, something I’ve noticed in our own home, with our Roomba. Even as robots are literally inhuman, we, children and parents alike, will include them in our families, imagining a personality or traits upon them.
7 | Rosie, The Jetsons
This list would not be complete without Rosie, the housekeeping robot for the Jetsons. The robot is designed for housework, keeping their futuristic house clean, and acting as a quasi-mother figure to the family as a whole.
Rosie has become a go-to catch all for housekeeping robots. Our Roomba? We totally named it Rosie. But it’s a character that also represents a bygone era where wealthy families often kept a housekeeper, someone who essentially became a member of the family in the long term.
If humanoid robots ever become the norm and widespread in homes, it shouldn’t be surprising if families go out of their way to include them as part of the family – either by dressing them in clothes, bestowing them with a name, or even altering their programming to fit in.