The naked robot

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

From the archive

A naked robot holding a flower
Image by bamenny from Pixabay 

Why are so many film robots naked? We take it for granted that robots don’t wear clothes, and why should they?

They are machines, not humans, after all. On the other hand, the quest to create artificial intelligence involves trying to create machines that share the special ingredients of humanity. One of the things that is certainly special about humans in comparison to other animals is the way we like to clothe and decorate our bodies. Perhaps we should think some more about why we do it but the robots don’t!

Shame or showoff?

The creation story in the Christian Bible suggests humans were thrown out of the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve felt the need to cover up – when they developed shame. Humans usually wear more than just the bare minimum though, so wearing clothing can’t be all about shame. Nor is it just about practicalities like keeping warm. Turn up at an interview covering your body with the wrong sort of clothes and you won’t get the job. Go to a fancy dress party in the clothes that got you the job and you will probably feel really uncomfortable the moment you see that everyone else is wearing costumes. Clothes are about decorating our bodies as much as covering them.

Our urge to decorate our bodies certainly seems to be a deeply rooted part of what makes us human. After all, anthropologists consider finds like ancient beads as the earliest indications of humanity evolving from apehood. It is taken as evidence that there really was someone ‘in there’ back then. Body painting is used as another sign of our emerging humanity. We still paint our bodies millennia later too. Don’t think we’re only talking about children getting their faces painted – grownups do it too, as the vast make-up industry and the popularity of tattoos show. We put shiny metal and stones around our necks and on our hands too.

The fashion urge

Whatever is going on in our heads, clearly the robots are missing something. Even in the movies the intelligent ones rarely feel the need to decorate their bodies. R2D2? C3PO? Wall-E? The exceptions are the ones created specifically to pass themselves off as human like in Blade Runner.

You can of course easily program a robot to ‘want’ to decorate itself, or to refuse to leave its bedroom unless it has managed to drape some cloth over its body and shiny wire round its neck, but if it was just following a programmed rule would that be the same as when a human wears clothes? Would it be evidence of ‘someone in there’? Presumably not!

We do it because of an inner need to conform more than an inner need to wear a particular thing. That is what fashion is really all about. Perhaps programming an urge to copy others would be a start. In Wall-E, the robot shows early signs of this as he tries to copy what he sees the humans doing in the old films he watches. At one point he even uses a hubcap as a prop hat for a dance. Human decoration may have started as a part of rituals too.

Where to now?

Is this need to decorate our bodies something special, something linked to what makes us human? Should we be working on what might lead to robots doing something similar of their own accord? When archaeologists are hunting through the rubble in thousands of years’ time, will there be something other than beads that would confirm their robot equivalent to self-awareness? If robots do start to decorate and cover up their bodies because they want to rather than because it was what some God-like programmer coded them to do, surely something special will have happened. Perhaps that will be the point when the machines have to leave their Garden of Eden too.


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This blog is funded through EPSRC grant EP/W033615/1.

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