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Robocop

Robocop is one of the more iconic figures of the film and TV arena, when it deals with augmented reality, robotics and embodiment. Detroit police officer Alex Murphy, killed in the line of duty at the wrong time and place, becomes the ideal candidate for an experiemtal program to create cyborg police officers to step the force's losses to increasingly violent crime. A unit more machine than man, which uses organic tissue for the things the machinery cannot yet duplicate - like the human mind. The franchise has spawned three movies, at least four made-for-TV films, and a TV series along with various novels and graphic novels, along with many videogames over the decades. The quality of the various offerings varies greatly, with some being little more than eye-candy fluff with plots best quietly forgotten.

Regardless, each fresh take on the concept has included many concepts that map over very well to the real-world equivalents, and offer new perspectives on old problems, or ways of highlighting problems yet to come. Revolving around the key twin concepts of robotic embodiment and augmented reality, various parts of the franchise have become iconic in their own way, for showcasing in an easily accessible visual format, what technologies that are just emerging now, will likely look like when they are matured.

As with all such efforts, there is much they get right, much they get in a plausible shape, and much that is flat-out wrong. However, picking between the inconsistencies and the hollywood pseudoscience, there is more than enough material here, to give a feast for the intelligent mind, as well as for the sharp eye.

None of the concepts in Robocop are unique to it, but the series was both one ofthe first to broach some of these concepts, and one of the first to do it well. As an additional bonus, many of the plots are quite good, as well.

Robocop One (1987)

The first Robocop film, the one that started it all. This film is the one where Alex Murphy is transformed into Robocop, and we see the violent method of law-enforcement made possible when your body is capable of repelling bullet fire, or fire of any kind. We also see some of the psychological issues involved in stripping a person away from one embodied state, and into another. Compounded by incomplete memories, and a break from the old life, by a choice not of their own. The conflict between programmed law, and heartfelt duty that becomes a running theme of the Robocop series, and also speaks so strongly of the difficulties inherent in any cyborg system, when part is programmed, and part is not.

Concepts raised:

ED-209 and the Fear over Programmed Robotics
When Neural Interfaces Include Commands
Augmented Reality: Robocop Style
The Human in the Machine

Robocop Two (1990)

The second Robocop film advances the timeline considerably, from the first. Robocop raised the bar against the criminal element in old Detroit, and as with any war, the other side raised the bar right back. A drug war is spiraling out of control and the police are on strike over the escalating casualties they are receiving. On top of that, the attempts to create more Robocops have been both expensive and disasterous, with every new model committing suicide or going insane, almost immediately after coming online. A psychological evaluation suggests unexpected reasons for why Alex Murphy survived the process, and looks at how embodiment affects the psyche. There is a suggestion then that subjects other than police officers might make the easiest transition; someone who doesn't see their body as the reflection of themselves. The someone they pick? A drug lord. Everything goes downhill from there.

Concepts raised:

The psychology of your current embodiment, and what happens when it is stripped.
The added dangers of insanity when embodied in a posthuman state
Brain in a Jar as an ideal method for re-embodiment.
Technological, external control systems for Free-Willed individuals

Robocop Three (1993)

The third Robocop film is a little different from its two predecessors, and makes several strange leaps in the story in order to set the situation up. It feels a little forced from the get-go, and has the loosest connection with reality, of the franchise so far. OCP, the company behind Robocop, and one of the largest in the world, has been purchased by a Japanese multinational, and for reasons never made clear, the old leadership is almost completely gone. Mercenaries roam the streets, herding the citizens of old Detroit into concentration camps, and the city is effectively under civil war.

Into this mess wades Robocop and the Detroit police department, trying to maintain order when the law has gone utterly insane. Struggling to find the line between law and morality, the cyborg's efforts are confounded by a grenade to the chest which nearly kills him, and a squad of Japanese ninja androids intent on finding him and slicing him into pieces.

Although the film's plot is probably better off forgotten, some of the parallels between a human mind in a robotic body versus an AI mind in a robotic body are worth mentioning. The film also brings up the possibility of interchanable hardware for Robocop and how that changes his embodiment equation still further.

Concepts raised:

AI versus AGI: The Limitations of even brilliant AI in a Robotic Body
Changing Embodiment With Hot-Swappable Limbs
The Challenges of Situational, Embodied AI

Robocop: The Series (1994)

Robocop: The Series, was an interesting departure for Robocop, that explored a whole host of avenues the film never touched. It was a daytime TV series, and as such, the extreme violence that characterised the Robocop franchise up until this point, was of course not possible. You could not have the cyborg police officer wading through guts and gristle whilst firing wildly with a machinegun on national TV in the early evening: It simply was not done.

As a result, this series explored the other aspects of a cyborg officer's embodiment: his superior strength and accessory packs. His mind, and connection to a sentient Internet-Of-Things. Every sensor in the city became a potential ally to his cause, and the more the perps relied on technology, the more he could bend that technology to his will.

The series ran for one season, 25 episodes.

Concepts Raised:

Virtual Embodiment
Uploading a mind into a Machine Consciousness
The Internet in One's Head
Many different takes on the psychological issues associated with embodiment, or mind augmentation
Many different takes on how greed or poorly thought out central control can damn even the best of innovations
Many, many different looks at a variety of augmented reality technologies, and their effects on society.

RoboCop: Prime Directives (2000)

Prime Directives takes place ten years after the events of the first film, and casts a darker light on Robocop's cyborg nature. Yes, at the time he was augmented into an awesome combination of man and machine, but technology has moved on. The very technology used to integrate his human brain with computer chips, is now obsolete. Since modern interfaces don't work the same way, no modern hardware can be used for replacement parts. He is old, he is tired, and he is falling apart. Near-suicidal, he struggles to get through each day, and digs around in the black markets for old computer chips to replace failing circuitry, as nothing available through normal channels is compatible with the systems he most needs to replace.

The first two fims focus on another cop, Alex Murphy's old partner John Cable, who is killed by Robocop when Robocop's tech systems are reprogrammed to force him against his will, to murder the man. This was done because OCP is near bankruptcy and needs to resurrect some of its old programs to survive. Cable was a near 100% psychological match for the old Robocop program, and as a Detroit police officer, was signed up to participate years prior. However, Cable stubbornly refused to die in the line of duty, and kept on surviving. Once he was killed, he was rushed straight into the Robocop program and successfully turned into one. The existence of two Robocops was proof that OCP could finally start making cyborg cops to order, and much-needed funding started coming in.

Unfortunately the mind-wipe performed on the first Robocop was not as complete as was hoped (much like the original mind-wipes) and he begins to remember. Backtracking his own actions, he becomes a threat to OCP as he begins to uncover the truth, and the second, Cable Robocop is sent to terminate him. It comes down to our Robocop to get the new one to listen to him, and join him against OCP.

The second half revolves around an AGI called SAINT that OCP plans to unveil upon the world: A city-controlling super-intelligence that turns all the electronic devices in a city into, essentially a single being. A sentient, self-aware Internet of Things. Nothing can possibly go wrong there, right? On top of that, a renegade faction, aopposed to SAINT, are developing a bio-tech virus, designed to infect technology, and crossing from technology to organic flesh via the neural interface, infect and destroy people's minds as well. It is a far out there concept, but not impossible, screaming of the dangers inherent in a fully interconnected world - with the potential to destroy all connected life of Earth.

Concepts Raised:

Viral Activity crossing the Neural Interface (Human Hacking)
Machine God
A Technological Plague
Hacking an Augmented Human: A Puppet inside your own body
The Internet of Things
Erasing a Compex, Multiple Substrate system
The politics of augmentation
The downsides to Augmentation in an age of Rapid Advancement

Staff Comments

 


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