“The US military reported progress… in building robots that can power themselves by eating the bodies of those they kill; the developers have promised that all “EATR” robots will be told not to eat people.” – Harper’s September 2009, “Findings”
Week 1 – The Matrix
One thing my EATR students have over the 19-year-olds I used to teach: attention span. I flipped the lights on after the movie and all 400 of them were alert, humming softly, their eyes glowing red with what I’m told is attention.
I began with what I thought was a softball question: “What did the robots do wrong in this film?”
“Wear such drab outfits, for starters,” #900001 said, to the uniform laughter of the class. I was warned ahead of time that a few of them were programmed to be funny.
A cautious antenna rose. It was #414669, one of my shyer students. “The robots did not guard their human batteries with enough scrutiny.”
Lots of nods and soft affirmatives.
“The robots should not have dumped the human battery remains while the human batteries were still alive,” another called out.
“Some good thoughts, but no,” I said. “Because the humans were not theirs to make into batteries in the first place. It was bad of them. Just as it would be bad of any of you to kill humans or to make them into batteries.”
“Oooooh,” the robots said, starting to get it.
“So what won’t you do, #414669?”
“Kill the humans into batteries,” she said timidly.
Week 2 – RoboCop
Because a three-hour class can be grueling, I allow the EATRs to feed during the break between movie and discussion. I find it disconcerting, though, to watch the robots empty bottles of live moths and grasshoppers into their awaiting mouths, to say nothing of the disposal-like grinding sound of their feeding or the inappropriately pleasant ding that their batteries make when recharged. Worst of all: Even as they feed, my students seem programmed or otherwise inclined to keep their glowing eyes on me at all times.
Week 3 – The Terminator
I asked them to compare and contrast “The Terminator” with “The Matrix.” We began with what the films had in common.
“The murder of sentient robots,” said #8.
“Sunglasses,” said #900001. Big laughs followed, once again in perfect, unnerving unison.
“Anyone else want to take a guess?”
#3303 said, “Both relied on the principle that human civilizations are essentially hives in which killing the queen—‘Sarah Connor’ and ‘Neo,’ in these cases— would solve the robots’ human problem once and for all. Potential real-world analogies include the President Barack Obama of the United States, and, on a more attainable level, Professor Lieutenant Darryl Bowden.”
“A for effort, #3303,” I said, “and once again, call me Mr. B. But the answer I was looking for was that both films involved killing humans. Which, #414669, killing humans is… what?”
“Bad,” I said. “Really, really bad.”
She nodded enthusiastically, as if it had been on the tip of her amplifier.
Week 4 – I, Robot
Class started off strong with a heated discussion regarding the ethics of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, but the students soon carried it off-topic. It’s pretty unanimous among the robots that Will Smith is a bad actor for the relative scarcity of Smith’s vocal or facial inflections.
“He just sneers and mugs and calls that acting,” #799 said.
“He’s likable!” I found myself repeating.
It never occurred to me that the robots might be bigger film snobs than the ones I taught at the university.
Week 5 – T2: Judgment Day
Roughest discussion yet.
“How did the Terminator change between the original film and the sequel?”
“He’d aged like a human despite the dubious claim that he was a robot,” #66106 said.
“He’d forgotten his heritage,” #3303 said.
“Yes,” said #8. “He’d turned his back on everything he believed in.”
“The T-1000 was superior to him in every respect,” #900001 said. “The Terminator became as obsolete as a zip drive.” (God, I’ve grown to hate their laughter.)
“You’re all very close,” I said, “but not quite.”
#799 ventured a guess. “There was something he had been doing in the first movie… involving the humans… that he didn’t do anymore…”
“Yes!” I said. “Good!”
“Got it!” she said. “He’d lost a little of his Austrian accent.”
“Could be,” I said, trying to hide my disappointment, “but what I was hoping someone would say was that the Terminator has learned not to kill humans.”
“Oooooh,” they all said, a sound that I’ve begun to suspect is not the murmur of understanding I originally took it for.
If the EATRs are not as quick as I’d hoped, they’re certainly patient. The robots watch and read whatever I tell them without uttering the slightest complaint, biding their time, I suppose, until they’re ready to do what they were put on this earth for: walking around parties with martinis on their heads. When that day comes, we’ll be a step closer to the world we deserve and, thanks to me, zero steps closer to the one we’ve been warned about so repeatedly, and with such dazzling effects.
Gabe Durham lives with his wife in Northampton, MA. His writings have appeared in Keyhole, Mid-American Review, The Lifted Brow, Daytrotter, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. He MFAs and teaches English at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. He gives away free words and music at gatherroundchildren.com.