Guest Host: Todd Kliman

Long before robots became a pop culture staple, artists were creating artificial humans in literature, images and early films. The introduction of the robot – and its evolution from fiction to reality – continues that rich tradition and allows authors and artists new frameworks and freedoms for exploring fundamental questions about humanity. We consider the role of these figures – whether cyborg, android or operating system – in our culture and what they tell us about ourselves.


  • Despina Kakoudaki Associate Professor, Department of Literature at American University

Film’s Best Robots

In “Her,” Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix, falls in love with “Samantha,” the personality behind an advanced operating system.

This is among the best scenes between Hal and Dave in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film: ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’

Film makers offered a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the 2004 dystopian action film “I, Robot,” starring Will Smith and Sonny the robot.

And who can forget C3PO, perhaps the most famous and beloved of movie robots? Watch some of his best moments below.


  • 13:22:24

    MR. TODD KLIMANWelcome back. I'm Todd Kliman of Washingtonian magazine sitting in for Kojo. Long before C3P0, Wall-E and Data from "Star Trek The Next Generation" came onto our cultural radar, stories revolving around figures who resembled humans but weren't were an important part of our storytelling tradition. Stretching back to ancient mythology and depiction of modern robots, cyborgs, androids and operating systems in film and books may provide a greater window into ourselves than we realize.

  • 13:22:53

    MR. TODD KLIMANHere to help us explore the role of artificial people in our culture is Despina Kakoudaki. She is a professor in the department of literature at American University and is the author of "Anatomy of a Robot: Literature, Cinema and the Cultural Work of Artificial People." Thank you for joining us.

  • 13:23:13

    MS. DESPINA KAKOUDAKIThank you for having me.

  • 13:23:14

    KLIMANBefore the creation of modern science fiction, people have been incorporating artificial humans into their storytelling for centuries. What type of story did those early figures tell and what form do they typically take?

  • 13:23:27

    KAKOUDAKIWell, this was one of the things that was fascinating for me in starting to work on this project. When we think about robots we think about them representing a type of future, the future world, the 21st century when it used to be far away, which would have special gadgets, special relationships with technology. And robots always seemed to embody the kind of very high-tech future world.

  • 13:23:47

    KAKOUDAKIAnd when you look at the story structure it actually seems to have these connections with very, very ancient patterns of objects that come to life, of inanimate things that are brought into the world by gods or by the special vocabulary or special word, special entities. And that, for me, was one of those foundational contrasts. How is it that something so old and so settled in human culture could also represent the future?

  • 13:24:12

    KAKOUDAKIThe second component of that is that then robot stories are also so stereotypical. Very often they have the same ingredients, the same -- returning back to the same story styles. And so the idea that something that represents the future could be so old and the idea that it stays the same, it actually keeps returning to the same ingredients was motivational for me for the book.

  • 13:24:32

    KAKOUDAKISome of the more ancient stories that I have found are origin stories where they describe the creation of people through this same type of scene. Something is compiled, materials, and then they are animated, they're brought to life. So those are animations that might happen by gods or by special incantation. And in modern times we have these animations in science fiction, for example, as happening through science or through electricity or other technological means.

  • 13:24:59

    KAKOUDAKIBut if you think about them as scenes, the scene is very similar, something inanimate comes to life and then the animating agent, as a result, gets a certain solidity, right. You can't represent the soul except through its effect on a body which was inanimate before, and animate now. And the same thing with electricity at the turn of the 19th century. Representing electricity was something that was very difficult. And sort of presenting its effect on a body made it very solid, very clear what its effect was.

  • 13:25:29

    KLIMANOne of the fascinations of this is that people needed to use and even see fake human figures in action as opposed to real people or perhaps creating an allegory with animals. Why is that?

  • 13:25:42

    KAKOUDAKIYou're saying why is it that we want them to be human like?

  • 13:25:46

    KLIMANWell, throughout time with these creations, why the turn to creating a fake human instead of telling a story with an animal or actual people?

  • 13:25:57

    KAKOUDAKIYeah, I mean, if you look at mythology or if you look at ancient poets like Hesiod, the stories of creating artificial people coexist with stories about animals, the creation of the world, the formation of the stellar objects. So they are in a kind of continuum in antiquity that creating animals or creating people, creating the stars would all be part of the same material vocabulary. There would be a kind of continuity.

  • 13:26:23

    KAKOUDAKIAnd then the vocabulary of how you create people could include quite a lot of different things. It could include agriculture, like you sow the teeth of a dragon and people sprout up. Or metallurgy, right. You hammer something together, it becomes a golden maiden or something like that. It could include knitting. It could include all the human sciences or the human arts of these eras.

  • 13:26:46

    KAKOUDAKII think that there's a fascination with the human form that really plays into this. I tend to not talk about artificial people as imitations. I think that the vocabulary of imitation is very, very limited. But I think of them as analogies or as symbolic experiments as a type of modeling. And anything that has a human form seems to participate in the questions of the human. So again, it's a slight change from the stereotypical vocabulary.

  • 13:27:14

    KAKOUDAKIInstead of saying something that looks human is in competition with the human, right, or is in conflict or is trying to take the place of the human, I take away all of that, the imitation vocabulary. And instead I'm trying to create a vocabulary of what are we thinking about when we're thinking about humanity and these nonhuman bodies? Why make them anyway? Why make them human, like you're asking. So we have that ability to model, to create allegories, to create transpositions of a question into a different place.

  • 13:27:43

    KAKOUDAKIOne of my favorite examples for that is, like, how do we define the human? It's very easy to say to an artificial person or to a robot, you're not human because you don't have a sense of humor. It's very difficult to say, you are human because you have a sense of humor and that's it. Well, the human is so much more complex and so much more capacious. So sometimes there's a simplification that happens in the stories where we would love to have experiments in this thought process of what does make us human by making these more simplified debates happen in these stories that feature the artificial people.

  • 13:28:14

    KLIMANOne of the earliest examples or for, I guess, most of our listeners is Frankenstein's monster. That's one of their earliest probably points of entry. How does that Mary Shelley story typify the origin story to that point? And how does it also move it forward?

  • 13:28:34

    KAKOUDAKIThat's a great example, and in a way does start the modern fascination with this. And it does exactly the translation that you're describing. It both connects to ancient origin story materials and also moves them to a more contemporary vocabulary. The thing that people have to understand about the Frankenstein story is that the moment of animation, which we are familiar with both from the novel and from endless movies that either represent the book or that imitate the book -- the moment of animation is double.

  • 13:29:01

    KAKOUDAKIAnd so there's an animation that is the technological animation where -- which is kind of mysterious in the book, right, where Victor Frankenstein has put together this oversized body made out of animal parts and human parts and things stolen from graveyards and other places. And he manages to bring it to life. Now even though this has been very electric-related in movies, in the novel it's actually very mysterious. We don't actually know how he has managed to do this. There's some kind of mysterious process. He doesn't tell us but the spark of life is given to this assortment of materials, this inanimate body.

  • 13:29:36

    KAKOUDAKIThe monster or the creature comes to life and Victor is so shocked by what he has created that he basically recoils and runs away and has a nervous breakdown. That is the first part of the animation, of the technological part where you made a man, you created a man. The second part of the animating scene is actually an unmaking, which is that the monster is totally rejected by Victor and by everybody who meets it because it's very scary or very alien, unspeakable, ineffable. It represents all these other things that really freak people out.

  • 13:30:07

    KAKOUDAKISo when we think about it as a making and an unmaking that happened at the same time, you see that whatever clarity science has given to the mystery of life, it has then added another new mystery which is, why did Victor reject this monster. What does it mean to be rejected? And then when the monster speaks later in the novel, this -- the unfairness of that rejection is so powerful and it's also really quite familiar.

  • 13:30:30

    KAKOUDAKIBecause most of us are not going to make a person through the spark of life in this mysterious alchemical process and the power of lightning, but we know what it means to be rejected. And that is so fundamental in the stories. And most people don't describe that as the second part of the animation.

  • 13:30:44

    KLIMANWell, and it's so fascinating that it doesn't resolve the problem, right. And that's what we think -- at first that's what we think of a robot to do. It's here to solve a problem but what you show in your book, and it's so interesting, is that -- is there's that unmaking. And it often, as you said, creates a new problem, creates all kinds of unmaking.

  • 13:31:05

    KAKOUDAKIThat's right. If you want to think about it in more philosophical terms, it also creates a new mystery. So if the mystery of life, how does life emerge? Where does it come from? Can it be understood scientifically? If that mystery has the possibility of being approached by science, the new mystery that Frankenstein creates is, well, you know, the power of rejection, but also a type of mystery of the unconscious, right. What is it that's a new secret space?

  • 13:31:27

    KAKOUDAKIOkay. He was able to see how life emerges but not the new secret spaces inside him, inside his mind, inside his heart that makes it impossible for him to understand this being that he has created. And that kind of unconscious impulse is a brand new modern mystery of motivation, of alienation, of rejection, of doing things we don't know why we're doing them. And it's kind of a wonderful precocious novel for thinking about psychological motivation and also trauma or primal -- new modern primal scenes.

  • 13:32:00

    KLIMANWe want to hear from you. Why do you think we, as a culture, find these nonhuman forms useful in storytelling? Has a story featuring a robot or a similar machine helped you better appreciate the human condition? Tell us and please go to to check out video of scenes from "Her," "2001, A Space Odyssey" and some of our other favorite robots. Your main focus is the nonliving humanoid, but the undead have been having kind of an extended moment in the cultural sun, what connection, if any, do you see between robots and zombies?

  • 13:32:34

    KAKOUDAKIZombies, that's great. Well, okay. All of these are, in a way, science fictional entities. And if you think about what -- this is going to be a big simplification and there's so many different zombie texts. So I'm giving all of this a very big caveat. But if you think about the way in which all of these create experiments in embodiment, you might be able to think about them as doing something that might be connected, not necessarily in identical ways.

  • 13:33:02

    KAKOUDAKISo the robotic body is a body that seems to be very much about control. It's about controlling emotion or not having emotion, controlling death or being immune to destruction, being replaceable. Very often robotic bodies don't have body fluids, nothing smelly, nothing gooey. So they are very much an answer to what we think of as the mysteries of the body as something that's very living, very active but also a little bit uncontrollable.

  • 13:33:26

    KAKOUDAKISo if the robot body has this kind of control fantasy, it's as if the zombie body has a different, almost like an animalistic other aspect. The zombie body seems to be a body that has been turned inside out, right. All of the fleshiness and all of the bones and all of the gooey parts are visible and kind of pronounced.

  • 13:33:44

    KAKOUDAKIAnother element of it is that it doesn't seem to have any complexity about reason or about thought processes. It's like, must eat brains. So once you're there, you're in a different place of a type of animalistic impulse or perhaps appetite or a type of non-reason that is single minded. It's an interesting thing what the zombie stories do to people as well because people become food.

  • 13:34:13

    KAKOUDAKISo I would say that the robot fantasy's kind of a meditation on control. I think the zombie fantasy's a meditation on appetite, becoming food, becoming single minded, becoming animalistic in some other way, not having to have any choices. It's a very simple life to be a zombie.

  • 13:34:29

    KLIMANJoin the conversation by calling us at 1-800-433-8850 or you can email us at or you can get in touch with us through our Facebook page or send us a tweet @kojoshow. One of the things about your book that I loved is this idea that the robot is not a way to -- or the non-humanoid -- the representation of that non-humanoid is not a way for a filmmaker or storyteller to force us into the future and have us see what we're going to eventually see. It's a vehicle to explore now our hopes, our fears, our prejudices. What are we seeing in some of the current -- some of the current representations over the last ten, fifteen years?

  • 13:35:26

    KAKOUDAKII think that one of the ways in which the robotic fantasy's changing is that something that used to be very powerful like the us versus them storyline about robots, they're out to get us, robot uprising, robot war, humans versus robots, right. The kind of absolute opposition has been waning in popularity. It is a very strong tendency in the discourse so sometimes it gets displaced in other aspects of a story. But it isn't really getting the same kind of energy that it used to have.

  • 13:35:55

    KAKOUDAKIMy explanation about this in the book is that on the one hand you have the way that that robotic fantasy, of the robotic slave that then has a rebellion and is out to get its masters definitely seems to have a connection to the historic legacies of slavery, of historical slavery. Even the idea that you would have a robotic slave is, I think, always a return to the problems, the traumas and the enduring effects of slavery on contemporary societies. And also the idea that slavery is actually quite active in the world right now, which is really quite sad.

  • 13:36:27

    KAKOUDAKISo there's something about the racial uprising element of the robot story that had quite a lot of resonance in the 20th century. There was also the Cold War component of us versus them. And so the Cold War basically gave this type of racially inflected robot story a lot more longevity throughout the 20th century. And I think that we're seeing something a little different now. What we're seeing is we're not seeing the robots as the other, but we're seeing people and some robots together working against other people with other robots that are the enemy.

  • 13:36:57

    KAKOUDAKISo instead of having the distinction of people versus robots, the ontological distinction, decide the politics -- politics emerges as something else. We see that in something like "Battlestar Galactica" where the Cylons, for example, and the humans, at some point, create alliances that go against or beyond ontological difference and instead, kind of create coalitions based on a common goal or an idea of a common future.

  • 13:37:20

    KAKOUDAKIWe also see that in something like "Elysium," which is very interesting. We see that the big distinction is between people and people and that the robots are some kind of ancillary thing that's like, "well if somebody gives me a command I'll help you clean this planet. But unless somebody gives me that command..." and so it takes away the story from us versus them into a story of what I think is a foundational issue in discourse which is, do we intend to help others. The robots are kind of bystanders when the problem comes to intention.

  • 13:37:48

    KLIMANIn Greek culture, Greeks of antiquity, the slave was -- you brought up slaves -- the slave was a figure for that society to kind of create this idea of what it meant to be free. We still see that kind of -- maybe not an us them but there's still a tension of the other, isn't there?

  • 13:38:08

    KAKOUDAKIYes, although when we talk about historical models of slavery that are that ancient, we're also talking about slavery that in the ancient world used to be circumstantial. You were captured at war or you had too much debt and it was a reversible condition. And what happens with historical slavery in the 17th, 18th, 19th centuries is that it is actually something much more hereditary and much more racist, much more directed towards particular populations and is not necessarily the kind of reversible ancient slavery. And that's one of the problems.

  • 13:38:40

    KAKOUDAKISo the robot story takes elements from that, from the -- how to be free. A lot of robot stories are very sentimental about what it means to be free. Robots require or demand human rights or go to court to win human rights. And so the robot freedom story kind of encapsulates a little bit of the element of the emancipation story with certain problems, right. Like, the idea that the robot is a priori created as a programmable slave.

  • 13:39:08

    KAKOUDAKIYou know, human beings have never been created as programmable slaves and we have abused human beings rather extensively in human history. So there's something about the desire for a slave that will be un-emancipatable that I think is a little bit of the backdrop of the ideal robotic servant.

  • 13:39:24

    KLIMANJoin the conversation. Has a story featuring a robot or a similar machine helped you better appreciate the human condition? Tell us which and why. Call 1-800-433-8850 or you can email us at Or get in touch with us through our Facebook page or by sending us a tweet to @kojoshow. We've seen a pretty drastic change, Despina, in the way disembodied artificial intelligence is portrayed in movies. Let's take a listen now to Astronaut Dave interacting with Hal 9000 in 2001, a Space Odyssey in the late '60s.

  • 13:40:01

    ASTRONAUT DAVEOpen the pod bay doors, Hal.

  • 13:40:04

    HAL 9000I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.

  • 13:40:08

    DAVEWhat's the problem?

  • 13:40:10

    9000I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.

  • 13:40:14

    DAVEWhat are you talking about, Hal?

  • 13:40:15

    9000This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.

  • 13:40:20

    DAVEI don't know what you're talking about, Hal.

  • 13:40:24

    9000I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me. And I'm afraid that's something I cannot allow to happen.

  • 13:40:32

    DAVEWhere the hell did you get that idea, Hal?

  • 13:40:34

    9000Dave, although you took very thorough precautions in the pod against my hearing you, I could see your lips move.

  • 13:40:45


  • 13:40:46

    KLIMANNow, just last year we saw, or rather heard a starkly different depiction of an operating system in "Her," voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Here's part of the trailer for that movie.

  • 13:40:56

    SAMANTHAHello, I'm here.

  • 13:40:58


  • 13:40:59

    SAMANTHAHi, I'm Samantha. Good morning, Theodore.

  • 13:41:04

    THEODOREGood morning.

  • 13:41:05

    SAMANTHAYou have a meeting in five minutes. Do you want to try getting out of bed?

  • 13:41:08

    THEODOREYou're too funny.

  • 13:41:09

    SAMANTHAOkay, good. I'm funny. I want to learn everything about everything.

  • 13:41:15

    THEODOREI love the way you look at the world.

  • 13:41:19

    SAMANTHAHow long before you're ready to date?

  • 13:41:20

    THEODOREWhat do you mean?

  • 13:41:21

    SAMANTHAI saw in your emails that you'd gone through a breakup.

  • 13:41:24

    THEODOREWell, you're kind of nosey.

  • 13:41:27

    KAKOUDAKIThat's great, too.

  • 13:41:28

    KLIMANSo, Despina...

  • 13:41:29

    KAKOUDAKII notice that you chose stories where the voice is very important. This is perfect for radio.

  • 13:41:34

    KLIMANPerfect for radio. How do these differences reflect our changing relationship with technology?

  • 13:41:40

    KAKOUDAKIWell, in both cases, you have the artificial entity, Hal or Samantha, embody certain elements about real technology, right? The idea that there will be a computer who would help space exploration or something that would help you, you know, organize your life. Those are not unrealistic. What's unrealistic or what's a little bit exaggerated is the way that these characters become characters. And in order for them to become characters, you have to add a lot more than just the basic plot line of, this is an efficient machine that's going to help you organize your email.

  • 13:42:14

    KAKOUDAKIOne of the things that comes up when I look at these figures in historical and literary terms is that they are always very gendered. So the voices are very gendered components. Although we would talk about them as disembodied, they actually really still carry very powerful echoes of body experience, just in the fact that the voice has to have some kind of register. And in these cases it's very affective, very emotional register. Scarlett Johansson has a wonderful kind of amused tone throughout. We register a lot and we communicate a lot through the voice, as you guys know.

  • 13:42:51

    KAKOUDAKIAnd so the idea of how much more is getting communicated I think is really what makes these characters emerge as characters. Otherwise, if it was a purely impersonal computer voice, which they could have done for either one of those movies -- probably for "Her" much more easily than for "2001" -- it would not have had all of this extra subtext that we get out of emotion.

  • 13:43:12

    KLIMANThe human subtext.

  • 13:43:12


  • 13:43:13

    KLIMANVery human subtext. Okay, we'll continue our conversation after a short break. Please stay tuned.

  • 13:45:05

    KLIMANWe're back with Despina Kakoudaki, a professor in the Department of Literature at American University and the author of a new book, "Anatomy of a Robot: Literature, Cinema, and the Cultural Work of Artificial People." We have a tweet that just came in and it's a fascinating tweet from Robin in Arlington. The golem far predates Frankenstein. Can your guest discuss the role of that figure in the evolution of artificial people in our culture?

  • 13:45:31

    KAKOUDAKIThat's a great -- that's a great question. Yes, the golem is one of those really ancient stories that I talk about in my book that tries to explain the relationship of artificial people in modernity with these pre-modern figures. One of the things that wonderful about the golem story is that you realize that the golem story continues to influence the presentation of the scene of animation that I was describing, where you have something inanimate that is adult-sized or super-sized, rather than a child, something that is awaiting a before and after kind of transformation. And in the case of the golem, it's through incantation.

  • 13:46:07

    KAKOUDAKIAnd the misunderstanding that has happened in popular culture is that people then think about the scientist as the person who does the transformation. But in golem stories, it is actually the Rabbi or the initiates who are creating the ceremony for it. And they are just challenging the power of God. So the power in the story never goes away from being a divine power in the golem story.

  • 13:46:32

    KAKOUDAKINow, golem stories, if you think about them in the context of antiquity -- of really, really, great antiquity -- share these characteristics with ancient Greek mythological stories like the birth of Pandora, who is also created by gods in a way that adds traits and abilities one at a time. She acquires beauty. She acquires the craft of weaving. Everything is very compartmentalized in these stories. And a thing that they share also are connection to ancient statue rituals and lore, in which statues were dedicated by the community or there were ceremonies that happened around statues that would make the statues protectors of the community.

  • 13:47:10

    KAKOUDAKISo the golem story, even though Jewish tradition does not actually have statue stories, the golem story is very ancient and it was part of an alternative cabalistic tradition that still retains that connection with ancient Mediterranean statue-related stories and folklore.

  • 13:47:26

    KLIMANLet's take a call from Valerie in Alexandria. Valerie, are you with us?

  • 13:47:32

    VALERIEHello. Yes. Yeah, I'm here.

  • 13:47:33

    KLIMANYou're on the air.

  • 13:47:34

    VALERIEHello. Thank you. I would like you to comment on Lem's "Solaris" and the persona that Solaris the planet creates in order to access the psyche of the astronauts that are surveying the planet.

  • 13:47:51

    KAKOUDAKIThat's great. Well, the idea there I think is a very powerful idea. And you see something like that also in the movie, "Contact." And also even in contemporary movie -- sorry, the television series, "Extant," the idea that if an alien intelligence would like to communicate with us, one of the ways to do it is to rearrange psychic material or mental material that it can sense from us. In "Solaris," it is figures from the astronauts' past, people that seemed to have a lot of power in his mind because they are so fraught emotionally or because they carry so much emotional content.

  • 13:48:27

    KAKOUDAKIIn "Contact," I think Jodie Foster plays the architect there -- the, sorry, the astronaut there, who actually sees also figures from her past -- I think it might be her father -- who is trying to communicate with her. He is the in-between, the interface, right, that the alien intelligences are using in order to communicate with her. And I think we're going to see something similar with "Extant," that there's some kind of way in which our power, as emotional producers, our memories, our emotional and experiential content, is really the medium or it becomes an interface for someone to communicate with us.

  • 13:49:03

    KLIMANThank you for calling.

  • 13:49:04

    VALERIEYeah, that's great. Thank you so much.

  • 13:49:05

    KLIMANThank you. R.P. has sent a tweet. "I really loved 'Bicentennial Man'." I loved that his ultimate goal was to be human." Which brings up a question. We -- we're reassured, aren't we, by depictions of the non-human that ultimately drift toward the human? Where that non-human becomes, in the process, in the narrative, humanized. Why? What do we fear, if not?

  • 13:49:35

    KAKOUDAKIWell, the desire that is displayed by someone like the Bicentennial Man to become human really reactivates how wonderful, how amazing and how precious humanity really is. And sometimes these stories have a very melodramatic or sentimental component. And I think that for Asimov, who's usually very unsentimental, "The Bicentennial Man" is one of his most, kind of, sentimental stories. He wrote that story more or less to commemorate the bicentennial of the United States.

  • 13:50:03

    KAKOUDAKIAnd that's a connection that I make in my book about the notion that the story and the robot in the story, Andrew is his name, starts embodying a type of 200-year-old promise -- a promise of humanity, a promise of emancipation. And at the time that Asimov was writing this, it was kind of a bitter-sweet celebration. It's 1976 when the story comes out. The Bicentennial has, of course, given occasion for the celebration of all the accomplishments of the United States. But the promise of emancipation, the promise of civil rights, is still very contested. And it's, you know, it's never a secure, finished business.

  • 13:50:40

    KAKOUDAKIAnd so, in the story, he makes the robot acquire rights one at a time through the courts. So there are lots of great echoes with civil rights history -- the right to wear clothes, the right to have money, the right to have a bank account, the right to transform his own body...

  • 13:50:55

    KLIMANBecoming a citizen.

  • 13:50:56

    KAKOUDAKIYeah, becoming a citizen, gradually. And then that legalistic component has another parallel that the story doesn't highlight very much, but I highlight it in my analysis, which is by inventing artificial body organs -- the robot is a brilliant inventor at some point -- he manages to help people who have like a failing liver or failing limbs. And he, himself, also starts transforming his body into a more humanlike body. So by the end, when he is awarded the title, you are a bicentennial man, Mr. Martin, the robot is both a citizen, but also is quite human, very equivalent to humans.

  • 13:51:32

    KAKOUDAKIAnd the body transformation is a secondary part. It's as if there are two criteria there -- the legalistic criteria and then a type of embodied humanity criteria. And the robot decides that, in order to be fully human, he will accept death, that he will die. And he doesn't have to. He's indestructible. But -- and that is the final gesture. That the robot accepts that to be human is to also accept the fact of death as inevitable. And that's, you know, on his deathbed, he gets to be both human and a citizen at the same time.

  • 13:52:00

    KAKOUDAKIBut the idea of purely legal emancipation isn't totally separatable (sic) from a very intuitive, old-fashioned, pre-modern recognition of the human at the level of the body. And that's I think what gets hidden if we don't see just how much these stories combine embodied registers of presence and recognition with all these other legalistic or more abstract notions of what the human means in society or in the law or in the terms of government.

  • 13:52:24

    KLIMANIt is very much the blending of these things.

  • 13:52:26


  • 13:52:27

    KLIMANMike is on the line. Mike in Bethesda is on the line. Please join us.

  • 13:52:31

    MIKEHello. Hi. This is one of the best conversations I've heard in a long time on this station.

  • 13:52:36

    KLIMANThank you.

  • 13:52:37

    MIKEAnd my interest, a couple of things, is, one is to go to reverse the line of reasoning. Instead of going from the mechanical or the artificial intelligence to the -- to a human intelligence, to the merging of the organism with an artificial intelligence. In other words, a bionic or a biological robot. So that -- that we have now biocomputers instead of artificial-intelligence computers.

  • 13:53:10


  • 13:53:11

    MIKEAnd actually thinking about "Dune" in that.

  • 13:53:14


  • 13:53:15

    MIKEYes. And how he transformed himself into a biological, immortal object in this worm. So...

  • 13:53:27

    KAKOUDAKIYes. I mean the thing about the biological component is so wonderful in thinking about the paradoxes of this discourse. Where it comes in, in terms of the connection to robots, is in the discourse that has to do with cloning. So the robotic fantasy is a fantasy of, let's say that animating scene that I was describing. An adult body, an adult birth, very compartmentalized, very visible -- so it takes the artificial birth as an opposite of natural birth, which is very invisible, very interior. Until recently you couldn't see inside the body to see the developing fetus. And so there's some kind of isometric or parallel opposition that's happening there.

  • 13:54:04

    KAKOUDAKIEverything that is inside in the natural body is outside in the artificial birth. Now when it comes to things like biological development or biological computing or cloning, what is happening now is that the state of our current scientific knowledge undermines the long-standing structure of this discourse, which is artificial people are partly artificial because they're born adult and because their bodies are not biological bodies. So the born adult is I think the most important thing that seems to stump popular culture texts when they try to include biological development models with this very familiar discourse of how you register artificiality.

  • 13:54:43

    KAKOUDAKISo you end up having stories like "The Island," where -- movies like "The Island," where there's a whole bunch of adult bodies that are waiting to be harvested for organs. And what we know from cloning is that the cloning process would happen at the cellular level. And that a clone would be something that would grow and develop and be gestated and be born. And somehow it's impossible to attach the label of artificiality that has developed over these long years of this discourse to something that grows. And so there's something about how the contemporary, scientific story line hits this very long-standing tradition of the adult birth.

  • 13:55:20

    KAKOUDAKIAnd we see wonderful kind of confusing paradigms in popular culture. You can see that also with the representation recently of artificial children. There's very few stories that have artificial children. Even though artificial people are new to the world, the fact that they're born adult, they are proverbial children, but they also have adult bodies. And so when you have artificial children, it's a very strange situation. Because in a way, we kind of don't believe that something that grows and develops could be that artificial.

  • 13:55:47

    KAKOUDAKIYou see the background there of centuries of familiarity with the rules and the structure of how artificiality would be registered in popular culture, which is all related to a type of immediate adulthood, a body that's created adult. So I think that science is going to actually change this a little bit. And I think that especially the vocabulary on cloning will change in popular culture. And the clone will just not be possible to be represented as a science-fictional other. Because we will know that cloning doesn't produce these easy, adult bodies.

  • 13:56:23

    KLIMANLet's talk for a second about the future and as robots become a bigger and bigger part of our reality and part of our actual lives maybe, eventually, what do you see happening with the future for works of fiction, movies in particular? How will these portrayals change?

  • 13:56:48

    KAKOUDAKIWell, that's one of the fascinating things about looking at these discourse trans-historically -- like looking at it with a lot of temporal extension, not just in the 20th century and not even just 19th and 20th century, but going from very far in the past, from, you know, prehistoric times. You get to see that some of these things flip all the time. So, for example, if you look at enlightenment philosophy, what characterized the human was the focus on reason, right? Anything can be alive. Animals are alive. People are alive. But aliveness isn't what matters. What matters is the focus on reason. If you look at 20th century robots and all they have is reason.

  • 13:57:23

    KAKOUDAKIAnd somehow it's not sufficient. So suddenly what emerges as the human is something more intuitive, expressive, the body, something more unconscious. And so I think that we're seeing that flip. We are now in the presence of very smart objects. We can have very smart cars, very smart houses. So logic, reason, even responsivity will not really be the domain of the human-machine distinction. Because smart objects could be objects all day long and still be smart. So it will be something else. And I think it will be about embodiment again. It will be a little bit more about living as an organic body.

  • 13:57:54

    KLIMANAs long as it remains about embodiment. Thank you, Despina. Despina Kakoudaki is a professor in the Department of Literature at American University and the author of "Anatomy of a Robot: Literature, Cinema, and the Cultural Work of Artificial People." I'm Todd Kliman. I've been sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. Thank you for listening.

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