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With robots making their debut in films, shows, and literature as early as the 1920s, the representation of robot pets in popular culture closely followed. From superhero robot dog films to books with plots of robot pets that can live forever, we explore how robotic companions are being represented in pop culture.
Although robot pet development only gained momentum and public acceptance in 1998, their debut in films came as early as 1979 with the sci-fi family movie C.H.O.M.P.S. The plot is simple, a young man invents a robot dog that is somewhat a superhero because of its super strength, x-ray vision, and ability to detect crimes. With such capabilities, an evil businessman tries to steal the robot dog from its owner.
While the film’s plot revolves around a robot dog, they do not make use of an actual model. At the time, robot pets were still being developed, so C.H.O.M.P.S. in the film would be swapped between a real dog and a mechanical dog. Albeit, the film still introduced the concept of robot pets as superheroes to the big screen, which later on many more films would integrate into their plots.
The 2018 action sci-fi film A-X-L is an example of a movie that would use a superhero robot dog for such. A.X.L. is the name of the robot dog that develops a special friendship with protagonist Miles, and just like a real dog, it would go to lengths to protect its owner.
While there are plenty of films that represent robot pets as superheroes, there are also those that cast them as villains and evil AI beings set to hunt for blood. The film Kingsman 2 for example uses robot dogs to hunt Elton John and Steven Spielberg’s 2002 sci-fi thriller Minority Report has spider robots that can make people go permanently blind.
As of writing, robot dogs are still the most used robot pets in films, may they be represented in robot form, CGI, or animation.
One of the earliest representations of robot pets in TV shows was in 1976 from the cartoon show Dynomutt Dog Wonder. It follows the adventures of a superhero robot dog named Dynomutt who causes hilarious hiccups and hindrances to its superhero master Blue Falcon when fighting criminals. This series helped represent robot dogs (or robot pets in general) as silly sentients with personalities as opposed to the usual stiff but loyal robotic companions.
Speaking of loyal robotic companions, the robot dog K9 from Doctor Who is a fan-favorite of many that got its show. The popular sci-fi series Doctor Who introduced K9 the robot dog, and because it was loved by many so much, it got its spinoff bearing the same name.
Aimed at an audience of 11 to 15-year-olds, K9 follows the adventures of the robot dog who falls through a time portal and ends up in the laboratory of Professor Gryffen. Although it was canceled after one season, the mere creation of a spinoff series featuring K9 proves how robot dogs (and robot pets) in TV shows can be lead characters on their own.
Perhaps one of the most famous representations of robot pets in pop culture altogether is from the Netflix series Black Mirror, season 4. The episode Metalhead involved a killer robot dog that carried lethal weapons. Set as the primary antagonists of the episode, the robot dogs would hunt and kill humans in a dystopian setting where human society has collapsed and said robots have taken over.
As Black Mirror is known to pattern their plots from real-life scenarios and situations, creator Charlie Brooker explains how he used Boston Dynamics’ robot dogs as inspiration for the episode. Since the military has also been investing in robot dogs, the plot of Metalhead proved to be a realistic nightmare for many.
While the representation of robot pets in literature has been done, there is still a lack of books that integrate them into plots. There exist essays, studies, short stories, and children’s books that use robot pets as subjects but these normally do not make it into the list of best-selling books.
Perhaps it is still quite difficult to paint a picture of robot pets in novels that will get the reader to emotionally invest in them. But author Arin Greenwood was able to manage it fairly well by giving it a creative spin. Her book entitled ‘Your Robot Dog Will Die’ is hailed as a provocative reflection on humanity and our damaging effects on the world.
The plot uses robot dogs as permanent replacements for actual dogs after a global experiment goes wrong. While robot dogs may not be written in the most positive light in the novel, their representation poses a reflective question on a few ethical considerations of owning one in replacement of live pets.
While robot pets have been integrated into films, shows, and books, they still lack diversity and representation in pop culture compared to the usual robots. However, as robot pets continue to be developed, we can only expect their presence and representation in pop culture to grow and diversify.