“What are robots really?” – Some Thoughts on “Atom: The Beginning”

[HorribleSubs] Atom - The Beginning - 03 [480p].mkv_snapshot_11.57_[2017.05.07_21.56.20]

Atom The Beginning is a curious series; unlike the precedent it would appear to follow of socially-conscious updates of traditionally simplistic hero series like Gatchaman Crowds (which like it or not explored the obsolescence of superheroes and indeed government in an internet of things-based society) or Yatterman Night (which was an able if occasionally awkward exploration of the nature of villainy in a simple black-and-white morality superhero narrative) it has yet to properly dig into any of the moral issues it would appear to focus on. The precedent is there for something rich. Astro Boy was a universe that within its child-friendly framework played on ideas of the morality of android technology and machine sentience. But Atom the Beginning is set in that era in a time before the events that led to the creation of, arguably, one of the first super robots.

It is about the lives of super-robot designers, and that in itself is enough to keep me watching. It is a quite optimistic series in a way, about young scientists that believe they can make a difference even if academia and society is uninterested. Unlike a number of super-robot series it is about a world where robots in some form or other are so commonplace as to be mundane, thus a super-robot is one which exceeds what society expects and is heroic. There are two robots in Atom that are on a par with each other – “Six” (A-106) and its rival, which seeks to destroy it at apparently the behest of the authorities. To its creators, Six is both the apex of artificial intelligence, a truly sentient machine that can learn and imitate humanity (prefiguring Astro Boy himself, created to be a surrogate son for a grieving father) but equally an exciting, hotblooded machine that can punch harder than any other robot and which has its library of special moves. The scene in episode two depicting the scientists’ different approaches to this when seeking research grants – after previous scenes of a parade celebrating the strength and utility of robots in general – shows how intelligence is an insignificant aspect and strength a mundane one to the establishment in a world where robots serve.

A-106’s strength is not immediately impressive in a world where robots already build, demolish and serve. A-106’s intelligence cannot be easily explained to scientists who do not apparently believe robots deserve, or are capable of, true humanity. The ethics of androids are being explored, in a fashion, through their creators. In episode 3, the PI Maruhige claims a robot does not have the “heart” to be a true detective – and indeed, when Umetarou uses A-106 to find a missing robot the process of mechanical signal-detection is proved flawed because it cannot find the right robot among many devices using similar signals. If this is critique of reliance on technology it is a subtle one; the series’ overriding theme is the misunderstood genius and inimitable drive of its heroes, and indeed A-106’s uniqueness. As yet the series is unwilling to fully commit to any thematic depth about the nature of a world reliant on robots; it has touched lightly on the different approaches technology offers and their limitations, it has touched lightly on the ethics of sentient machines and yet it has yet to properly interrogate these in-depth cyberpunk themes. It is not really a cyberpunk series, after all; it is more about the strained interactions of its human cast, with the machines remaining – at this point – tools. The heroes speak highly of A-106’s sentience and intelligence, but still ultimately see it as their creation. The other robots in the series all seem to be tools themselves, of varying degrees of autonomy but still secondary to humans. Pets, soldiers, tools and enforcers – machine servitude is the theme here. Even A-106 makes tea, defends the lab and has barely a voice or personality. And episode 3 has the whole principal cast, machine and human, helping an old man find his rare robotic pet.

As Ochanomizu searches for the missing robot pet, he talks about his own memory of owning one; basic animal obedience and emotional connection, answering to a name, has become a “feature” of a machine; and thus “giving it a name helps you feel attached” – and Ochanomizu “cried when it broke.” Humans can relate to machines, and can create emotional attachments to them – indeed, the whole conceit of the episode is an old man looking for an irreplaceable, out-of-production machine because it is rare and he cherishes it. This is, if anything, a very cyberpunk endpoint; robots may be replaceable and repairable and functionally just consumer goods, but people build attachments to simulacra of living creatures. From a modern-day perspective as the audience would hold, from a world where “pets” are living beings, which are held to different philosophical standards and duties of care than the tools and toys unthinking machines are, the conflation of emotional responses is alienating. One may be, I feel, distressed that a tool or computer has broken – but the prevailing attitude in society now is that this is a different sort of response to the illness and suffering of a living thing. I know for me, anyway, the idea that an animal feels pain and discomfort elicits a different distress than knowing a machine needs repairing because the machine’s nonfunctionality does not cause it pain. The mundanity of robots and their integration into society is made clear in this episode; its whole focus is on finding a machine with which the owner has made an emotional connection.

Returning to the “contest” central to episode 3; A-106 can provide endless amounts of raw, useless data. It cannot narrow down search criteria in the way Umetarou wants it to without specific instructions driven by human intuition. Even when Umetarou does narrow the criteria down, all A-106 finds is an identical robot but not the right one. A machine searching for machines can only find things that meet certain criteria it can detect; these are not the things that matter to humans. The client in the case, at the centre of this mistaken identity, explains how the fashion was in his youth to buy pairs of robots that could simulate the dynamics of social groupings; Malon, the missing robot, was the old man’s wife’s robot. The simulacrum of friendship helped the human couple come together and fall in love, and the disappearance of the robot prefigured the death of the man’s wife. The obsolete, rare robot becomes a symbol to the man of a missing human connection and thus gains emotional value. All of this makes episode 3 of Atom a distinctly smarter investigation of robotics than it first appears; it is building, clearly, to a closer interrogation of machine ethics but currently employs a light touch, using the implications of its vignettes to drive the viewer to deeper thought of their own. The fact it was a routine system message from Matsutaro, the surviving robot, that helped the old man revive his hope to find the missing Malon suggests that the emotionally objective and detached nature of machine interaction can have unintended human resonance. Man’s attachment to machine is not revealed to be a true emotional attachment to a machine, but instead to the memories of human interaction associated with ownership of that machine. This is a rather more positive outlook, one that suggests that machines can improve and aid human interaction rather than replace it. Indeed, as Ochanomizu is overcome by emotion at the reunion Umetarou reminds him they are nothing but robots acting as they are programmed – but Maruhige reminds Umetarou that what matters more is the old man’s memories and feelings than any objective scientific viewpoint.

At the episode’s climax, an obvious realisation comes; human methodical searching and the inefficient and data-heavy approach taken by A-106 are useless individually, but can be usefully combined. Maruhige and Ochanomizu have searched many places while Umetarou and A-106 scanned the whole area from a distance. By combining their information, a more efficient approach can be created. And, in a neat punchline, the solution is underground – the very place which was identified as somewhere where neither approach would be immediately useful. The theme of the episode is thus redefined; machines alone cannot offer useful information for humans, and humans alone cannot cover enough ground or process enough data to compete with machines. But a symbiosis exists, and this is useful. And with this restatement of the moral, it becomes once again a thematically light touch; the series is building a world which is blithely taking on truisms about man’s relationship with robots and putting within that world two protagonists who are building a machine capable of more. Thus the implied tension, moving on, is what will happen when one party or other – society or the supposedly intelligent A-106 – works out the innate power imbalance in the current relationship.

[HorribleSubs] Atom - The Beginning - 03 [480p].mkv_snapshot_22.01_[2017.05.07_22.29.59]

The episode ends with Ran asking “what are robots really?” – a question she claims society has proven unable to properly address despite the ubiquity of robots. All she can say is that “these robots were irreplaceable in the eyes of that man” – whether or not sentimentality for toys and possessions is rational or sensible, it is nevertheless a feeling freighted with deeper emotional resonance.


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