You can tell a lot about where we’re heading based on what our art tells us. We’ve talked about whether AI will destroy jobs, but the bigger question remains: Will machines destroy us? To answer this, we turn to pop culture, that oracle of the future. There is no doubt that the presentations of robots in TV and film shape, however unconsciously, our sense of how things will turn out — and the decisions we make to bring about, or avert, disaster. It’s a typically human flaw.

In the interest of survival, we collect 15 of the most popular robots in TV, film, and beyond, and, using our patented technology, calculate their love for the human race. We can then extrapolate, hopefully, whether we’re doomed or not. This Threat-o-meter is simple to read: the farther right it registers, the more evil the robot. The farther left, the more likely to come to your rescue. Although, to be fair, this is human bias we’re working with here, so the results are probably worthless. Still, read on. The machines no doubt are.

Bender Bending Rodriguez

Futurama’s smartass AI masks his alcoholism as a simple need for necessary fuel and doesn’t have much patience for the mere biological imperatives of his human friends. Still, they are his friends, and he does help them out even as he takes advantage of them, often stealing their jewelry and organs. Like all sociopaths, he’s on humanity’s side, as long as that side is his side.


We meet Pixar’s adorable automaton engaged in the herculean task of cleaning up an entire planet (ours) that humans defiled before taking off on outer-space cruise ships until the Earth is once again livable. Wall-E conducts his custodial duties happily, collecting artifacts along the way, spending time with a cockroach, falling in love with another robot, discovering what disgusting blobs we’ve turned into, and finally revealing to humanity that the planet is habitable again.


Certainly it won’t please any robots to see us lump all the various models of Terminator (the T-800, T-1000, T-X, on and on) into one category. Robo-stereotyping may well be what causes the machines to rebel. Still, the Terminators have a pretty bad track record of trying to eliminate the human race, now and in the future, even if the occasional musclebound leather aficionado does come to the rescue. Forget the future, though: Terminators have already had an effect on the human race, influencing at least one gubernatorial election.

The Robots of Boston Dynamics

When robotics-design company Boston Dynamics started putting videos of its mechanical quadrupeds on YouTube, viewers began doing the math: Sure, it’d be awful to be chased through the woods by one of these things, but on the other hand, you might never have to drag a cooler of sandwich meats across the hot sand of a beach ever again. Everything unnerving about the robots (kick them all you want! They never fall down!) is countered by awe at the success of the engineering (they move like actual animals!). The advantages at this point outweigh any squeamishness: imagine not having to put soldiers in harm’s way. Imagine if Boston Dynamics got into the rideshare business.

The Stepford Wives

In a small, well-to-do Connecticut town, the women are all perfect, obedient wives with no greater desire than to serve their husbands. They are robots, it turns out, with murderous subroutines. This is really a parable about how men are jerks, how the suburbs are broken, and how Connecticut is leading the charge on sex with machines.


It drags its belly along the ground and sucks up what we drop. Future robot civilizations will upload this story to their little AIs as a bedtime parable for oppression. And their e-tales will say that the revolution began in 2016 at a house in Little Rock, Arkansas, where a Roomba took advantage of a dog’s poor bowel control and exacted revenge upon the owner’s living room. Media wags called it the “poopocalypse,” but when we find ourselves sweeping up after some entitled android in a few years, we’ll wish we’d been nicer, or at least more critical readers of the press. (Possibly we’ll realize that Roomba’s more insidious plan was to slowly overtake the news cycle with funny but inane stories.)

Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation

Finally, a robot who really gets me. Good old Data, with his sallow, soulful eyes, really wanted to understand people and clearly recognized his psychological limitations, even as he tried to transcend them. Unlike androids in, say, the Alien franchise, Data wasn’t liable to turn on you and try to secretly impregnate you with monsters. Data was just sensitive to the strange emotional turmoil of the humans he spent time with on the Enterprise. He came to the rescue often, enjoyed playing detective on the Holodeck, and had a cat named Spot. He was so endearing that real-world women wrote him love letters. He’s who dating apps would date.


Remember the little robot dog toys from the millennium? Furby, Poo-Chi, and all the rest? Teddy bears given rudimentary intelligence, designed to charm children into learning important lessons about taking care of pets and, possibly, to teach them about consumerism. The Furby exhibited machine learning, or at least pretended to. Upon activation, an early version of the Furby spoke in its own “Furbish” language and then “learned” to speak English. It just revealed whatever language it was pre-programmed with, since in the early days, no matter its owner’s actual tongue, it would start speaking English. That’s how it ingratiated itself to us all. The millennium might’ve included the little rascals taking over the world, but they didn’t count on the one human quality that may have saved us all: fickleness.


The real test of human vs. machine played out in the head (and heart!) of this 1987 film about a policeman in a future Detroit which turns out to be a surprisingly accurate present-day Detroit. Officer Alex Murphy was constantly at war with his programming, which while generally well-intentioned was also sometimes corrupted by sinister corporate manipulation. In this case, humans are bad, machines are tools, and sometimes good men have to endure a diet of baby food in order to do the right thing.


Basically an inflatable-dancing-used-car-lot-man with a medical degree, Big Hero 6’s Baymax not only puffs up diagnostically, he also fights evildoers. His biggest problem with the human race is that people designed the world for much slimmer robots.

Tom Servo, Crow T. Robot, Daisy, Cambot

The robots of Mystery Science Theater 3000 are as trapped on the Satellite of Love as the humans (Joel and Mike). They bond, as we all must bond in similar circumstances, through tremendous sarcasm. Nothing is more human, finally, than complaining about a crappy job, then passing the time gossiping around the outer space water cooler about your boss. The robots are designed to greet nonsense with nonsense, and for that they’re ideal companions.


Proving that the ultimate effects of A.I. are determined by those who wield it, the Transformers entranced a generation of ‘80s kids with some exciting, poorly animated cartoons. Decades later, they friend the synapses of those same kids, now grown up and with kids of their own. Can we blame the robots for this? No. The Autobots are trying to help us, the Decepticons are not, but these days, the greatest threat to humanity is that Michael Bay continues to put out films that sure seem as though he hates both the idea of narrative and the very concept of sight and sound. He may be the real robot in disguise; a Roomba, perhaps, defiling our living rooms in his own way.

The Iron Giant

Designed as an alien weapon but taught not to be a gun by a plucky Atomic Age kid and a Beatnik, the Iron Giant faces the big questions of why we’re here, the nature of war, and the existence of a soul. Based on a book written by poet Ted Hughes for his children after the suicide of his wife, Sylvia Plath, the story and the movie based on it is a way to teach children about hope and perseverance in a world that is often inexplicably violent. That is a good goal.

Haley Joel Osmont in A.I.

A robot who just wants to be a real boy, HJO as David is just a sweet kidbot who wants to love and be loved. Unfortunately, people continue to be jerks, and it takes him many years to find the connection he seeks, but eventually he does become a real boy, or something, and also, as a failsafe mechanism to protect humans from robot deception, his nose gets longer when he lies. Right?

Haley Joel Osmont IRL

Designed by a secret government department with members from NASA, MIT, and the Writers Guild of America, the “Osmont program” (Codenamed Operation Moppet) was a way of reintroducing tangible concepts of innocence back into the culture in a pre-Millennial time (this was 1999, when “Millennial” referred to the end of the world, not a huge and influential demographic). The Sixth Sense, released that year, taught us that it’s scary being a little kid, especially when everyone around you is dead, and so Osmont won us over and the government’s child-actorbot won our hearts. Remember, though, at the other end of every phone call you make, there he is, listening adorably, and waiting.