Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

New ‘RoboCop’ reboots the roboethics dilemma

The one good thing about being unable to sleep in an aircraft, sitting in a cramped-up position for longer than eight hours at a time in the case of two successive flights, is that you can catch up on all the recent movies you’ve not had the time to view. On our recent trip to Korea this is exactly what I did, with the result that I could have a look at the 2014 remake of RoboCop (directed by José Padilha), among other films, to judge for myself whether it is worthwhile. I was pleasantly surprised.

By “worthwhile” I do not for one minute have only its technical features in mind — they are always subject to the question, whether the film puts forward a sound idea regarding science and technology, because this is what determines the quality of science fiction. From the reviews of the RoboCop remake that I’ve read, I had not expected much. Most reviewers are so obsessed with the technical aspect of film that they usually miss what it, as a work of art (which all films are) signifies or means, although this is what determines the quality of artworks, cinematic or otherwise.

Although it is a popular, as opposed to a serious work of art (like Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, or Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy, for instance), the latest version of RoboCop develops an important critique of the quest for complete technological control of society. In the process it highlights the ambivalence that is constitutive of all (good) science fiction, namely, its pharmakon-character of displaying both the constructive, world-creating power of science and technology, on the one hand, and its lethal, destructive capacity (not only in a physical sense) on the other.

Because it is a Hollywood product, there’s always the danger that most viewers will simply read the film at the level of a sci-fi action thriller, and be totally oblivious of the subtler aspects of its social and political critique. More is the pity, because “RoboCop reboot” is a timely cinematic assessment of the likely future of robotics programmes in the US in the name, supposedly, of “safety and security”.

On the face of it this recent RoboCop’s plot is simple enough: Police officer Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is seriously injured when an explosive device attached to his car by crooked cops afraid of being exposed by him blows his body apart — in fact, only his head, throat, heart, lungs and right hand are what’s left of him. But don’t despair — Alex’s misfortune provides the ideal opportunity for Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), the CEO of OmniCorp (the company developing robot drones), to come up with something that would soften the public’s resistance to robots: a hybrid cyborg.

This happens in the context of a nationwide debate in the US about the question, whether to use robots to police the streets (in the name of “safety and security”; the current mantra in the US), or whether to retain the human element of empathy, moral judgement and the capacity for affective involvement in law-enforcement. Alex’s cybernetic reconstruction into a “human robot” would satisfy both requirements.

So far the “Dreyfus Act” (sponsored by a senator who opposes the complete “robotisation” of the police force) has held sway, leading to Sellars’ decision to combine robotics and a human being, producing a true cyborg, or cybernetic organism. Alex’s near-death is therefore a gift from the gods, as it were, and Dr Norton (Gary Oldman), the scientist leading the project of reconstructing him, manages to build Alex’s remains into an impressive “cyber-body” that renders him superior, in purely physical terms, to any living human being.

There is a problem, however. On waking Alex, and confronting him with his new “self”, he is horrified, pleading with Dr Norton to let him die, and literally running away when his pleas fall on deaf ears, clearing all kinds of barriers in his way, until his power source is depleted, and he comes to a stop. He is persuaded, in the end, to do his duty for la patrie USA, and — this moment having been prepared by pre-explosion scenes of tenderness between him, his beautiful wife and young son — he is allowed to re-unite briefly with his family, despite his own misgivings about his ability to be a father and husband in his new cyborg state.

But on the day when he is supposed to make his public debut as the “answer” to pervasive crime, he becomes so tense and distraught by the prospect that he has a seizure. On pain of losing his leading scientific role unless he can save the day, Dr Norton shuts down the emotional activity centres in Alex’s brain, rendering him a coldly logical and super-efficient “human machine”, oxymoronically speaking. Predictably, his wife and son pick up this change on his part, and this becomes the issue on which the narrative turns.

Having “proved” his efficiency in several situations, Alex is kept apart from his family, but his wife eventually makes a public statement in this regard, highlighting the deleterious effects the separation is having on their son. She seizes an opportunity to inform Alex of this, and he visits the scene at his house where the devastating explosion occurred, reconstructing everything in graphic detail by means of his enhanced memory and cognitive capacity. Monitoring his brain function from the laboratory, Dr Norton is astonished to witness the gradual return of all Alex’s affective, emotional functions, which needless to say, sets Alex on a collision course with Sellars, who is intent on profiting optimally from his cyborg capabilities by softening the public’s stance on fully-fledged robot-policing.

Lest I divulge too many details of the fairly predictable denouement, suffice it to say that Dr Norton admits in the end that he was wrong in manipulating Alex’s emotional capabilities, which reduced him temporarily to a quasi-machine, and the film ends with what is probably its most significant scene. Samuel L Jackson, as Pat Novak (the media guru who functions as a kind of chorus throughout the movie), fills American audiences in on the latest developments in the Alex Murphy saga, clearly identifying, once again, the two sides in the debate about the use of robot-policing in America itself. He concludes by lamenting the US president’s decision to stop short of full-blown robotisation, and exhorts all those who are still sceptical about the need for robots to guarantee “safety and security” to “stop whining” and accept it as inevitable, concluding on the ironic note of proclaiming America to be the greatest country that has ever existed.

The truly significant science-fictional moment of critique in the film is this: having set up the opposition between the options of thoroughgoing machine-policing and law-enforcement by human police officers whose humanity is still intact, albeit combined with a cyborg body, the film’s unmistakable message is that the exclusion of the human element from law-enforcement, which would lead to huge profits for the manufacturing companies involved, would result in a thoroughly dehumanised social environment.

Just how dehumanising it would be is brought across graphically in the opening scene-sequence of the film, where a reporter is being shown just how effective robot or drone policing is in an Arabic country (Afghanistan, I think). When some of the inhabitants offer armed resistance in an effort to show the rest of the world (on television) how America imposes technical control on them, they are ruthlessly and effectively destroyed by the robotic devices.

Against this backdrop the narrative of Alex Murphy’s cyborg reconstruction facing the test, not merely of technical efficacy, but of retaining his humanity despite his terrible mutilation and subsequent cybernetic integration, testifies to a belief in the irrepressible nature of the human spirit, which asserts itself in the face of every attempt to place technical constraints on it.

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  • 4 Responses to “New ‘RoboCop’ reboots the roboethics dilemma”

    1. Samuel Maina Salim #

      In a way, I think the ‘Robocop’ reboot extrapolates and then comments on the drone program. In my view, such remote controlled tech, represented in some way by the robots trying to maintain order in what is presumably Afghanistan, reduces empathy and turns war and maintenance of civil order into a cold, clinical exercise that is not very different from trying to rack up a high score in an FPS game.

      The movie also raises concerns about Artificial Intelligence. In the future, robots (and drones) will probably be autonomous. If programmers are so far removed from the consequences of the software that they write, what’s to stop them from crafting cold, unemotional code that cares more about achievements than human lives? Could ‘Robocop’ be the precursor to the Terminator’s callous Skynet? Could humanity be laying the foundation of its own extinction?

      June 22, 2014 at 9:08 am
    2. Bert Olivier
      Bert #

      Samuel – Thanks for raising this. I did not have the space to elaborate on the difference between a cyborg, an ‘autonomous’ robot or drone, and the kind of remote-controlled drones used by the US today. In the case of the latter, although they are controlled by humans, not being on the scene in the presence of the people being monitored, certainly, in my view, reduces the ability to judge and empathise.

      June 22, 2014 at 9:06 pm
    3. Richard #

      Looking at human policing in most of the world (which is extended to military actions in many instances), can we really say it is practised in a humane manner? In Britain, Bobbies were not allowed to carry weapons, relying instead on truncheons. However, with the rise of violent crime, they were simply unable to carry on as before. Immigrant groups arrived with very different cultural values, and it became impossible for them not to be armed. The reasoning was that having guns would dehumanise the police. What happened in effect was that being without guns, the criminals simply overwhelmed them. The matter is really that our whole society is becoming technologised, not simply one part of it.

      The use of tools per se indeed removes the doer from the doing. However, is this not simply another form of advantageous adaptation? Instead of it being genetic, and expressed in flesh and bone, it is our brains that have created the adaptation. In other words, have we not become architects of our own evolutionary future through technology? The idea that consciousness is able to act as an extension of the DNA that exists in the brain cells that engender it, is quite an extraordinary thought. No longer simply relying on the crawling pace of hit-or-miss, trial-and-error, genetic errors creating mutations, technology has put humanity in control of that process to some extent.

      Policing is one small aspect of that. I don’t see how it can be deferred.

      June 22, 2014 at 11:08 pm
    4. Bert Olivier
      Bert #

      Richard, I partly agree with you. That is, I agree that technological progress will unavoidably be reflected in something like policing – better weapons, etc. – but I don’t see that this could justify using quasi-autonomous robots to carry out police work. The human factor is indispensable for that, because no matter how sophisticated robot- or drone-programming might be (i.t.o. face-recognition, ‘cooperation’, etc.), no machine can communicate with a human being in the way that another human being can communicate. And doing justice to people depends on this.

      June 24, 2014 at 11:05 am

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