Robots In Fiction – Humanoid Helpers and Mechanical Menaces

by Michael Hehn

A robot is an electromechanical device capable of performing both programmed and autonomous tasks. Robots in fictional media tend to have humanoid characteristics and are able to interact with their human creators. Fictional robots also tend to be highly intelligent and follow human orders.

Much of the drama of robots in fiction occurs when robots either exceed their programming or their programming becomes corrupted. A robot that began a story as humanity’s faithful servant often ended it by becoming the villain. The following is a brief overview of robots in fiction.

Reading About Robots

In 1942, science fiction author Isaac Asimov introduced the world to his Three Laws of Robotics. In a series of short stories and novels, Asimov explained these Three Laws through the interaction of robots and humans.

Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics were 1) A robot may not harm a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; 2) A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; and 3) A robot must protect its own existence, as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Asimov’s robots were constructed with fictional “positronic” brains. His robots were constrained by the Three Laws, with the First Law taking precedence over the others, and the Second Law taking precedence over the Third Law. Drama in Asimov’s robot stories usually resulted from unexpected behavior from robots obeying the Three Laws in unanticipated ways.

Mechanical Men In Movies

The information about robots presented here will do one of two things: either it will reinforce what you know about robots or it will teach you something new. Both are good outcomes.

Robby the RobotThe 1956 science fiction classic film “Forbidden Planet” introduced audiences to Robby the Robot. Created by Dr. Morbius with the assistance of alien technology, the enormously talented Robby served as a glorified butler to Dr. Morbius and his daughter. Robby possessed the strength to carry at least 10 tons, could converse intelligently on many subjects, and even had the ability to convert matter from one form to another. If the ship’s drunken cook served as “comic relief” in the movie, then Robby the Robot certainly fulfilled the role of “straight man.” It is worth noting that Robby was programmed with the equivalent of Asimov’s First Law of Robotics in that he could not harm a human being, even when ordered to do so by a human.

The “Star Wars” saga spanned almost three decades and introduced a whole new breed of robot. The robots R2-D2 and C-3PO were referred to as “droids” (e.g., androids, or robots with human form). However, only C-3PO had a humanoid body. R2-D2’s squat cylindrical body and non-speech communication made him more robotic than his humanoid companion.

“The Terminator” showcased the evil robot turning on his creator. In this twist of the classic Frankenstein story, the evil cyborgs (e.g., cybernetic organisms, or robots with organic parts) gained self-awareness and sought to eliminate their creators. This movie differs from the others discussed here in that the robot was specifically programmed to kill humans. However, in typical Hollywood fashion, later movies featured a robot protector sent to protect humans from the killer Terminator.

Television Tin Men

The robot from the “Lost In Space” television series remains one of the most recognizable TV robots. The unnamed Robot, like his ancestor Robby, existed to serve the Robinson family. Despite his dome-like head and cylindrical body, the Robot was portrayed as very human through his personality and extreme loyalty to his owners. He often acted as a companion to the boy Will, and is noted for his signature warning, “Danger, Will Robinson!” An incarnation of Robby the Robot actually appeared in an episode of “Lost In Space.”

More recently, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” included the android named Data as a member of the crew. Except for his unusual skin and eye color, Data appeared to be human. In fact, to be human was Data’s eventual goal. Data and his evil twin Lore, possessed great speed, strength, and supercomputer brains. In tribute to Isaac Asimov’s groundbreaking robot fiction, Data’s brain was referred to as “positronic.” Data possessed much greater latitude in his actions and choices than the other robots discussed in this article.


Robots and their more human-like android cousins will continue to be an integral part of science fiction in all media. They will continue to serve as humanity’s most faithful servants, most intelligent villains, and even comic relief. As robots become more common in today’s society, their influence on fictional media will continue to grow.

Those who only know one or two facts about robots can be confused by misleading information. The best way to help those who are misled is to gently correct them with the truths you’re learning here.