When we think of robots we think of this little cutie or the disguised type that Michael Bay likes to blow up in his Transformers movies, but it doesn’t have to end there. Here’s the low-down on some other automated amigos.
Androids: Man-made creations designed to look and act like humans.
Automaton: A self-operating, non-electronic machine. Generally made to resemble humans or animals.
Cyborg: Short for ‘cybernetic organism’, Cyborgs are humans with mechanical components.
Drone: Usually an armed, remote-controlled vehicle designed to operate without an on-board human pilot.
Mecha: Generally a large robot controlled by a human pilot, who wears the machine like a ‘suit’.
There are in fact more types of robot than I care to mention for the purpose of this article, but those listed above are the kinds we might find more commonly in our fiction. So how do we go about making our robotic characters more… well, robotic than their human counterparts?
Robots (unless they’re an alien race from outer space) are created and programmed by human beings. It’s open to debate whether robots can be taught human emotions, although there are developments which suggest robots are able to recognise and interpret them.
Regardless, a lack or restriction of emotion is just one element you can use to differentiate your robotic characters from your human ones (assuming that is what you want, of course…!).
Most robots are depicted as relying on logic over emotion. They fail to be compromised by their ‘feelings’, either because they don’t have any or they are programmed to assess situations logically in order to find the most suitable conclusion. As a result, they cannot be emotionally damaged or have their feelings hurt. They will not weigh one person above another due to love or affection. If what is happening before them is deemed logically correct according to their programming, they will not intervene.
Drones and Mecha are even more emotionless than any other type of robot, generally because they are controlled by a human (either within the machine itself or at a distance in real-time). They are tools to be used by humans and therefore have no opportunity or ability to give input on what they are being ordered to do.
Even though some robots - like androids - are created to replicate and relate to human beings, there will be notable differences between their respective behaviours.
In psychology, there are numerous key theories of what causes and motivates human behaviour. Regarding robots, it can be assumed that the majority will work through something like stimulus-response. For example:
Stimulus: I’m injured. Response: Shut down minor functions and reroute power to preserve higher functions.
Assuming your robotic characters are programmed down to the last binary sequence to absolutely not deviate from their coding, their behaviour will be stiff and abrupt, with no time allowed for consideration between actions. This means there will be a lack of empathy and anxiety when it comes down to decision-making.
Robot characters are also less likely to develop habits that are not necessary to their functionality and purpose. Humans - when put under stress - may bite their nails, tap their feet or pace. Since robots can sometimes lack these emotions, then they are less likely to display the kind of behaviour that humans use as social cues. This can make it difficult for humans to read a robot, especially if its tone is flat and it has no ability to change its expression. Alternatively, robots may misinterpret certain human habits or find themselves unable to read seemingly obvious social cues.
There may be certain behaviours and routines that your robot character displays that would not be necessary for a human to do (such as ‘updating’ knowledge, going into ‘stasis’, adjusting internal mechanisms, etc). Just as animals all have their own unique habits compared to us, a robot might have specific mannerisms of their own.
It’s also interesting to look into what kind of self-destructive behaviours a robot might learn or develop. Strong anxiety, depression or prolonged stress can affect a human negatively, even causing them to do things that cause them harm. If your robotic character doesn’t totally lack an emotional side, it might be worth thinking about how they may adapt to long-term stresses.
Most androids (disregarding some exceptions) have awkward, stiff movements as a result of being mechanical. They lack the fluidity of movement that humans have, as they are not made up of muscle and joints, but instead wires and mechanisms. It can be difficult for someone to develop a robot that has utterly realistic movements. Some even lack the body parts to replicate specific movements (such as having wheels instead of feet, for example).
Remember, for Mecha, the movement is going to be heavier and slower, just as it is with the likes of the Cybertronians. Their size doesn’t permit for delicate, graceful movements when moving around human cities and architecture. This doesn’t mean they lack precision or an ability to use complicated combat styles, it just means they’re more likely to break things when moving from A to B.
Cyborgs are part-human and part-robot, so they could display a mixture of both types of behaviour. Where they may come across as perfectly human in one minute, they may act out strange, ‘alien’ behaviours to the human eye in the next. For example, not blinking or yawning, sleeping with their eyes open, focusing on one thing for long periods of time without shifting their weight, not breathing, etc.
One way to bring a robotic character fully to life is to describe what kind of sounds it might make, and even how it might smell. That sounds strange.. it’s not like they’re going to be wearing cologne or perfume, but machinery does have a scent to it as do humans and animals. Also, because robotic characters are full of small mechanisms and processors, they may emit sounds as they move or engage in internal procedures, kind of like how our computers/laptops ‘breathe’ and make clunky, rumbling sounds when they’re switched on for long periods of time.
These are just some things to get you thinking, but nothing beats your own research! Please see below for further resources and a list of the robots you absolutely have to know about…! Hopefully these will encourage you to click further afield and discover more about developing robotic technologies in our world.