Tue, Jul 27, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Digital man is coming!

The current crop of robots, designed to outperform their masters, are a metaphor for self-improvement, some commentators say

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , New York

A Gundam Superior Defender toy robot. Inset, a robot keychain by Prada. A procession of robotic humanoids are beginning to insinuate themselves into the popular consciousness.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

Make me perfect," the comely young model implores the plastic surgeon in an early episode of Nip/Tuck, the popular cable drama. The doctor is swift to oblige, snatching the woman's lipstick to mark up her cheekbones, belly and breasts -- strategic areas where an artful tug or implant promise to transform her from merely gorgeous to sublime.

The surgeon might have taken his cues from Ellery Pierce, the misanthropic narrator of Adventures of the Artificial Woman, Thomas Berger's new sci-fi parable about a maker of animatronic theme-park beasts who turns his talents to the manufacture of a simulated wife. Her name is Phyllis and she is a paragon, all lissome contours, silky hair and poreless "skin," oil-heated so as to be warm to the touch. "Not only were her limbs satin smooth and would never need depilation or know scars, but they would stay in that condition," her creator exults.

`the stepford wives' scene

Phyllis is but the latest in an eerie procession of humanoids to insinuate themselves into the popular consciousness. Automatons, some fearsome, some friendly, populate a flurry of summer films, among them, of course, the pneumatic digital homemakers of The Stepford Wives and the elegantly attenuated silicone-and-metal men of I, Robot. Doc Ock, a robotized villain, animates Spider-Man 2, his slinky metallic tentacles turning on their master at a critical juncture in the film and bending his will to their own. Programmed humans function like digital zombies in The Bourne Supremacy, and The Manchurian Candidate.

Robots have also marched onto the shelves of toy stores and fashion boutiques. Some, like Miuccia Prada's whimsical, retro-futuristic digital men and women, suspended from key chains, have a nostalgic, endearingly cartoonish appeal. Others, inspired by Japanese animation, have entered the mainstream via Gundam, the palm-size plastic cyborgs popular with the preschool set, as cute and harmless as hamsters.

But the most provocative robots, those with the potential to chill, are the androids, digital beings with advanced motor skills, humanlike thought processes and even facial ticks that persuasively mimic people. Replicants, to a contemporary eye, seem a harbinger of a not-so-distant future -- one in which mannequins hard-wired with human attributes will so effectively mirror their makers as to seem interchangeable. That seems an apt conceit in a society that often prefers the artful copy to the flawed original.

Indeed, as some scholars argue, the current crop of robots, those designed to outperform their masters, stand as a metaphor for the relentless, and uniquely (perhaps) American drive to self-improvement. To a high degree robots are us, Dr. Sidney Perkowitz, the author of Digital People: From Bionic Humans to Androids and a physicist at Emory

University, suggested. "If there was ever a people that thought we could make ourselves perfect, we are it," Perkowitz said.

The fascination with robots goes back many decades. Metal monsters and intelligent machines like those of Fritz Lang's Metropolis or the Karel Capek 1921 play RUR first sparked the popular imagination in the decades of Sinclair Lewis and Babbitt. It was a time "when America was in great danger of vanishing into a nameless, faceless mass," as Akiva Goldsman, a writer of I, Robot, pointed out.

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