By Michael Grasso / May 22, 2017
In the 1980s, everyone from World Heavyweight Champion Rocky Balboa to private investigators living on houseboats had a robot sidekick hanging around. The journey to this imaginary future-present seen on movie and TV screens—full of friendly, helpful household robots and artificial intelligences—reaches back through the utopian aspirations of postwar cyberneticians and the subsequent fears of industrial automation just a couple of decades later. It includes pop culture immortals and relative unknowns. The 1980s offered a unique temporal juncture in which hope and anxiety over what robots might do for (and to) humanity battled for supremacy in the American mind.
In the years following World War II, the public slowly became aware, through corporate marketing and pop culture, of the benefits of advances in household automation technology. Ever since the electrical revolution, the development of household appliances was posed by advertisers as a respite for the keeper of the household in the traditional American home—the housewife. The washer and dryer, the dishwasher, the radar range: all were labor-saving devices meant to make the onerous housework faster and easier. In some concept kitchens and homes, the robots were literalized, but, realistically, humanoid robots were never within technological reach in the 1950s.
Possibly the most famous household robot of this New Frontier era, Rosie from The Jetsons (1962), took the form of a household domestic, thereby moving the traditional maid found in affluent households into a resolutely middle-class, if futuristic, home. Rosie’s addition to the family happens in the very first episode of the original Jetsons series. George is pressured by his wife Jane to purchase a time-saving robot domestic (which is of course ironic in a world of push-button everything). Frugal George buys Rosie, an obsolete model; her styling, that of an old iron clunker of a robot on primitive rolly-wheels, is much more old-fashioned than the Jetsons’ ultramodern world of sky-high Googie living. Moreover, Rosie’s name echoes the World War II character of “Rosie the Riveter,” which, for the audience of the early 1960s, would be evocative of the just-past age of rivets and girders that built America’s war machine.
So, two decades later, why did the 1980s see such an influx of household robots in both fact and fiction? On the most obvious level, the technology finally began to catch up to those postwar dreams of a robot in every household. On an everyday basis, elements of robotics, cybernetics, and automation were entering the middle class American household in a way never seen before. Whether it was the proliferation of automated teller machines that freed the American consumer from the tyranny of “bankers’ hours,” or more minor telecommunications advances like home answering machines, voice mail systems, and automated touch-tone telephone menus, myriad “improvements” that took away the human element from the business sphere were becoming more and more popular. The Americans (2013-), a contemporary show set in the early 1980s, had a breakout star in its third season: a mail robot at FBI headquarters, based on real mail delivery robots used in offices in the late ’70s and early ’80s. There were also consumer-level robots being marketed to both small businesses and homes during the same period, some of which we’ll examine later.
More important, there was a newfound American anxiety about automation in the early 1980s in terms of heavy industry. On the industrial front, improvements in robotics were beginning to chip away at the postwar consensus of worker prosperity. At the forefront of this fear was the sense of loss of manufacturing dominance to Japan, alluded to in pop culture artifacts like Styx’s song “Mr. Roboto” (1983) and the film Gung Ho (1986). The dangers of untrammeled automation had been a concern of speculative authors as early as the 1950s, as young Kurt Vonnegut’s debut novel Player Piano (1952) depicted a now startlingly-familiar future America divided into a small ruling class of plant managers and engineers on the one hand, and a vast underclass full of suddenly-useless former laborers on the other. But for the 1980s consumer family, confronted with a wide array of new options in home electronics, computers, and technology, the robot was coveted as a useful home appliance like the dishwasher, cable decoder box, or VCR.
By the early ’80s, even affluent suburbanites could have a robot rolling along in their own homes. In 1982, Heathkit, a popular postwar purveyor of radio and electronics equipment, began selling its HERO line of robots, starting with the HERO 1. Robotics hobbyists and the growing personal computer consumer sector made the HERO a household name in the first half of the decade, as did some of the company’s unorthodox “viral marketing” campaigns. In 1983, Don Herbert returned to the role of Mr. Wizard to educate the Generation X kids of the Boomers he’d broadcast to in the 1950s. In his Nickelodeon series Mr. Wizard’s World, which ran until 1990, Mr. Wizard entered the exciting world of the computer and robotics revolutions. In addition to lessons in the programming language LOGO, Mr. Wizard also demonstrated home robots to the kids on the show. Prominent among these was his HERO 1 demo, which showed off the robot’s infrared proximity detector and optional speech synthesizer. This same line of Heath HERO robots appeared in the short-lived CBS series Whiz Kids (1983-1984), about a group of young troubleshooters who used computers and scientific knowledge to solve crimes. Androbot’s Topo robot, subsidized by Atari’s Nolan Bushnell, and RB Robot Corporation’s RB5X, which was featured as a grand prize on the video game competition show Starcade (1982-1983), followed the HERO 1 in 1983.
In most fictional 1980s media, homes and businesses were not constrained by the limitations of real-life technology. In Rocky IV (1985), the ambient American anxieties of man vs. machine are made expressly literal with the competing training montages of Rocky Balboa (chopping wood and climbing mountains in Russia) and Soviet fighter Ivan Drago (working out in gyms and labs, hooked up to equipment like some kind of Communist cyborg). But it’s the comic relief plot of Rocky IV that better shows off the aspirational hopes of domestic robotics. As Rocky’s son videotapes with a home camcorder, Rocky presents brother-in-law and Philly schlub Paulie with a home robot on Paulie’s birthday. The robot, Sico, was used in many movie and TV productions (enough to have its own Screen Actors Guild card) and has an interesting origin story of its own. Much as Neil Young’s experimentation with electronic instrumentation was partially an attempt to reach his son, who has cerebral palsy, Stallone’s interest in Sico stemmed from his son Seargeoh’s autism. Sico was designed by Robert Doornick, a robotics researcher and entrepreneur who found promise in the idea of robots aiding autistic students with communication skills. In Rocky IV, Sico is given to Paulie for “companionship,” which is even more intriguing given present-day trends in elder-care robotics (memorably explored in the 2012 film Robot & Frank).
The action genre, which dominated the Nielsen ratings in the 1980s, would quickly bring the robot sidekick into the fold. After all, it was the era of “super-vehicle” action series, with America working out its post-Vietnam hangover using super-helicopter-based programs like Airwolf (1984-1987) and the shorter-lived movie spinoff series Blue Thunder (1984). While these vehicles were incredibly advanced, they weren’t powered by conscious artificial intelligences like The Knight Industries Two Thousand (KITT) of NBC’s Knight Rider (1982-1986), who’s essentially a robot sidekick in the form of a modified Pontiac Trans-Am. As far as humanoid robots helping television action-adventurers, there was the series Riptide (1984-1986), about a pair of Vietnam vets who open their own detective agency based on a houseboat.
They had access to an array of vehicles, much like the aforementioned super-vehicle shows, as well as other ’80s detective-adventurers like Magnum, P.I. and the A-Team. They also had something more. Like the Whiz Kids, the Riptide crew discovers that solving crimes in the high-tech ’80s requires specialized assistance, and so detectives Nick and Cody recruit a techie from their Vietnam days, Boz, who comes with his robot, inventively named “the Roboz.” The Roboz resembles Sico from Rocky IV with his big-eyed, insectoid head. He doesn’t talk, unlike other sassy robots of this era, but he does act as a sort of proto-internet for the Riptide crew, helping them with research and information gathering, displaying the results on the screen in his chest. Could this function have been performed by a more realistic desktop personal computer? Sure, and in many episodes it indeed is, but then the Riptide team wouldn’t have had an amiable high-tech mascot. There’s another quite interesting similarity with Whiz Kids (and a lot of the action teams of 1980s television): the Riptide crew uses its access to robotics and computers to act on behalf of the little guy against both big business and, occasionally, government conspiracies. The technology invented and developed by the giants of the information technology sector is co-opted to give the underdog a leg up. One might argue that this is yet another power fantasy for the disenfranchised and confused American worker, a way to make the encroaching face of cybernetic consensus palatable. All the while, this rebellion fantasy is served up on TV screens by the major television networks, themselves the information technology giants of their day.
A household robot was an easy way to bring a vision of the future into the hidebound program genres that populated the television airwaves at the dawn of the 1980s. On a Season 5 episode of sitcom Benson (1979-1986) called “Human Element” (1983), a robot is added to the governor’s staff, shoving human advisors like Benson and officious twit Clayton Endicott III (played by René Auberjonois) to the side. As the Governor decides to follow the robot’s purely logic-based political suggestions to the exclusion of the “human element,” the humans on staff need to bond together to convince the Governor that human decisions are necessary in politics. This episode of Benson is an express rejection of cybernetics in politics, as surely as John Badham’s WarGames, also from 1983, warned against the inclusion of automation in decisions affecting nuclear war. In fact, also in 1983, the real world nearly came to the brink of nuclear annihilation thanks to a malfunction in the Soviet early warning system that misreported the launch of ICBMs from the United States. Our timeline was saved only thanks to the calm, quick decisiveness of Soviet military officer Stanislav Petrov.
There’s one 1980s TV series, though, that’s probably the most frequently (if not most fondly) remembered for its miraculous household robot. That series is, of course, Small Wonder (1985-1989), an early example of a new type of television series produced in the late ’70s in the United States: one expressly and exclusively produced for syndication to independent UHF stations. These series were often quickie productions, sold cheaply, and Small Wonder shows it in every bit of its four-year run. The central conceit of the show is that roboticist Ted Lawson, who is working, like the maker of Sico, to help handicapped children, invents a robot daughter for his household. The cliché here is to say, “Hilarity ensues!” in an ironic fashion, but even that might be a big ask here. Let’s say instead, “Bad child acting and broad sitcom plots ensue.” The child robot, V.I.C.I. (“Voice Input Child Identicant”) essentially becomes a super-powerful, emotionless slave for the Lawson household.
The program is just plain uncanny. Between the fact that for the first half of the show’s run, Vicki wears a gingham dress like a life-sized, old-timey porcelain doll, the often disturbing humor of Vicky being asked to do chores around the house, Vicky’s monotone voice not being remarked upon at all by either family or visitors to the Lawson household (pace the “nosey neighbor” characters), and the overall weirdness of Vicky being cloaked as a member of the Lawson family as the family simultaneously treats her like an appliance, I consider Small Wonder to be the nadir of the household robot media of the 1980s. All of the humor, subversiveness, and bonhomie of the other intrusions of the robot into the domestic sphere we’ve seen in the decade are gone. All that remains is mindless, laugh-tracked misery. One of Ted Lawson’s biggest fears about Vicky being discovered, in regularly-recurring plotlines, is that his bosses from the corporation he works for, “United Robotronics,” will find out he took a robot prototype home with him and brought it into his family. But the narrative never really commits to Vicky’s living as part of the Lawson family being in any way liberatory or subversive against the company in those first couple of seasons. Vicky has just exchanged the lab at United Robotronics for another type of lab, the Lawson’s suburban home. In the Small Wonder-verse, there is no escape from exploitation and slavery. The robots are coming for the jobs of cute TV sitcom tykes.
“Smarf” before and after his revelation as a Terminator-style cyborg in the Adult Swim short “Too Many Cooks” (2014)
Small Wonder was the first program that came to mind when the iconic Adult Swim short “Too Many Cooks” went online in 2014. Itself an uncanny deconstruction of many of these tossed-off, cheap-looking family sitcoms of the late ’80s and ’90s, “Too Many Cooks” featured a dual tribute to both robot and alien “domestic sidekick/intruders” in the initially briefly-glimpsed character of “Smarf,” meant to echo the wise-cracking domestic alien ALF (1986-1990). But, as the barriers between genres and credit sequences all break down violently in the short’s third act, Smarf is called upon to hit a red button to reset this broken, twisted universe. Prior to this sequence, Smarf is revealed not only to be a magical being with rainbow powers, but also a Terminator-style robot who dispatches the deranged serial killer/cannibal who’s been stalking the glitched-out and decaying credit sequence. To bring some modicum of normality to a television universe that has been irreparably broken, the narrative calls upon this cybernetic outsider to, ironically, restore order. One could argue that “Too Many Cooks,” in madhouse reflection of our childhood memories of television and its eventual total metafictional breakdown, is recognizing the power of the robotic sidekick to recenter and complete the household, and yet still add an element of weirdness and alienness.
With the American home today now fully inhabited by both cute and friendly mobile robots and sinister artificial intelligences, we’ve reached a version of the future promised to us by 1980s media, but one largely absent of magic. Far from being a friendly, homely face that helps us fight the power and make our lives easier, new and unsettling features of these robotic “helpers” seem to crop up every day, all of which seem to serve the corporations that made them and the government that can listen in on a home’s every conversation—if not every conversation. It seems our future is less Riptide‘s 1984 and more like Orwell’s 1984: a panopticon of telescreens and hovering helicopter drones.