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"No, no, no. You gotta listen to the way people talk. See, you don't say like 'affirmative' or some shit like that. You say... 'no problemo'. If someone comes off to you with an attitude, you say 'eat me'. If you wanna shine them on, it's 'Hasta la vista, baby!' "

In Terminator (1984), Schwarzeneggar's character (the T-800) is evil and his speech suitably monosyllabic. But in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1992), the updated T-850 must learn to interact more positively with humans.

As John Connor tutors Arnold Schwarzeneggar's muscular cyborg, the T-850, in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1992), it is colloquial diversity, an informal register and heavy use of slang which are judged to be quintessential components of non-machine, indisputably human speech. The Terminator nods mechanically in response and repeats his lesson: "No problemo." This linguistic osmosis is key to the T-850's naturalisation. In this instance it provides significant reassurance to the viewer that he possesses the capability to relate not just to John, but to humanity at large.

In The Terminator (1984), in which Schwarzeneggar of course plays the role of assassin rather than protector to the Connor dynasty, the previous series T-800's speech is on the whole noticeably abrupt and mechanical. He often speaks in monotone, such as when challenged by the gun store owner who protests at his placing a cartridge into a brand new shotgun inside his shop. "You can't do that," he says. "Wrong." replies the T-800, coolly, before proceeding to fire the same shotgun round directly into the shop owner's torso.

In this essay I will explore the history of machine dialogue in film, demonstrating the rise of robot/computer speech tropes from eerily silent beginnings. I will also discuss the relationship of machine speech to human speech as key to the common representation of machines as Others. That is, beings distinct as inherently non-human and characteristically opposed to our survival either as individuals or indeed as an entire species.

Of course, in making The Terminator, James Cameron was not completely blind to the incongruity of giving a conspicuously simplistic vocabulary to a cyborg who is supposed to blend in seamlessly with mankind. The Terminator, as assassin, is able to navigate his way through the human-dominated world of 1984 with just enough linguistic panache to go unchallenged. In this mode, his awareness, however awkward, of natural speech patterns becomes a tool which helps him to carry out his murderous mission.

"...Buddy, you got a dead cat in there?..."

At one point a janitor knocks at the door of an apartment in which the T-800 has chosen to lie low. The janitor sarcastically asks about the disturbing smell emanating from the room (the Terminator's outer living tissue has begun to fester following injury). An appropriate response is selected from a computerised list of possibilities including, "Yes / No", "Go away" and "Please come back later." Skipping these the T-800 opts instead for a suitably hostile but unequivocally "human" choice: "Fuck you, asshole."

Like the slang taught to the T-800 in Terminator 2, this invective sits uncomfortably within a wider vocabulary of 'Terminator speech' which is frankly cartoonish, if it is deployed at all. That cartoonish quality is partly down to the exaggerated version of Arnold Schwarzeneggar's baritone Austrian accent – a clear stylistic choice by James Cameron. The machine's otherness is signalled partly via the attributes of a foreign national identity.

"...Fuck you, asshole..."

But, that said, the Terminator would probably prefer to remain completely silent were it not for the necessity of communicating with people. The T-1000 for example, John Connor's would-be assassin in Terminator 2, has but a handful of very short lines, many of which are chilling imperatives like, "Get out," and "Call to John. Now." The final battle, of course, between T-850 and T-1000, is one in which both parties remain coldly silent and expressionless.

Poster for Houdini's Mastery Mystery
The Master Mystery was a 15-part, independent serial. The producer was B. A. Rolfe.
Some original footage has been lost since the serial's release in 1919.

The silence of the assassin terminators has a long and densely populated ancestry. In fact, the lineage of this begins with some of the very first representations of robots on film. In Harry Houdini's serial The Master Mystery (1919), a clunky looking robot protects the members of a shady international cartel. This scene (right) is an early analogue to The Terminator, for in it the automaton "Q" stomps determinedly through a house, terrorising his victims without speaking a single word.

Other early representations continue along similar lines. The giant and terrifying eponymous villain of the 1921 feature The Mechanical Man and the curious cylindrical robot soldiers which appear in the 1938 American TV series Undersea Kingdom all kill people in complete, unfathomable silence. That The Master Mystery and The Mechanical Man are both silent films does not preclude the possibility that the automatons could have "spoken" via title cards. Their "silence", indeed, is evidenced just as much by their mechanical movements and their unchanging or expressionless visages as it is by their lack of dialogue.

Significantly, the very idea of machine as humanoid seems to have often led directly to the assumption that such a being's intentions would be villainous. In the The Master Mystery, when one of the members of the cartel is shown a design for the automaton he comments:

"Do you mean to tell me that a human brain can be transplanted to a giant machine similar to this model? Ridiculous, and even if possible it would be of no use except as a terrible engine of destruction."

What is the basis for this alignment of machinery with death? And when exactly did the notion of automatons as silent killing machines emerge?

Even Frankenstein's monster had dialogue. Although a distorted, composite being, he was a complex soul who contemplated philosophical questions and attempted to thoughtfully unravel what made him different, if indeed he was different, from his creator. Later cyborgs and androids would struggle with exactly the same question, as I will show, but early 20th Century fictional robots were most often thuggish and senseless. They, of course, evolved from a specific matter – the 'mindless' mechanisms of Victorian engineering. Like senseless industrial machines (which in the factories of that era claimed many lives) these fearsome brutes seemed closed to reason, let alone discussion. They merely lumbered towards their victims like metal zombies with giant limbs outstretched, offering only death.

Already there existed the notion that the machine, by virtue of its substantial or material difference to the organic fibre of man, would seek to destroy him; would be indifferent to his morality and deaf to his cries of pain. Coded in the silence of these murdering behemoths was the fundamental truth that machines were man-made, aberrations of man, while man himself was a child of nature. Among the gifts of nature to man was certainly the ability to speak. Subsequent representations of robots and computers in films which allow for more talkative personalities do not dismiss this fact but rather reinforce it. This is because, as in the scenes I have cited from the Terminator series, robot or computer speech is almost always still Other – something of ours that has been appropriated but mangled. It remains awkward, still necessarily somewhat at odds with our own speaking.

"Robot or computer speech is almost always still Other – something of ours that has been appropriated but mangled"
Sound waves on oscilloscopes
Sound waves on oscilloscopes

Furthermore, destructive yet silent early robots could in part be interpreted as an artistic representation of the rivalry of man with machine, a rivalry which had emerged in the hyper-industrial era of the 1800s and infamously discovers its founding myth in the actions of the Luddites. Films like Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times (1936) dealt further with the displacement of workers into unemployment by increasingly automated factory systems. And of course, the very term "robot" was coined by Czech writer Karel Capek in a play which problematizes the tension between human and mechanical labour: R.U.R. [Rossum's Universal Robots] (1920). In R.U.R., robots provide manual labour at a fifth of the cost of human equivalents, but they grow to resent their subservient roles and eventually rebel against their creators – a socialist revolution which results in the extermination of the human race.

Clearly, key features of humanity were challenged alongside the emergence of Victorian machinery. From the capacity to feel and express emotion, to the rate at which a human being could work, mechanisation appeared unsympathetic to mankind's long-established role as the dominant species. Hence the proposition that machines threatened his very survival and would appear destined to signal or facilitate his demise.

But as the 20th Century wore on, this paranoia about machines and the predisposition to represent them as destructors evolved into a more complex and more verbally active relationship. Man realised his co-existence with machinery was unshakable and therefore striking up conversation became inevitable. With the arrival of post-WWII computer technology, concepts of artificial intelligence began to capture the public imagination. Indeed, the talking computers and babbling robots predicted by computer scientists like Alan Turing seemed, to a few, imminent.

Early experiments with prosthetic speech captured the difficulties that lay – and which still lie – ahead. These vidoes show early examples of synthesized speech output. In the first video, speech is applied to a real world situation, though note that the computer's utterances (as in all of these examples) are manually controlled.

"The only way to tell man from machine... is by the sound of their scream!!!"

Screamers (1995) is a slightly gruesome sci-fi horror in which acoustic differences between mankind and evil robots are foregrounded.

Throughout the later 20th Century, filmmakers toyed with a diverse array of speech types for artificially intelligent machines. The daleks of the BBC TV series Dr. Who, although not true robots but mutants in machine shells, did little to advance the silence of their early 20th Century cousins, and simply announced in staccato shrieks, "Exterminate! Exterminate! You will be ex-ter-mi-na-ted!" Their gift for terrorising was almost exclusively down to the hostility of this robotised, piercing refrain.

Cacophony, it is true, has frequently been used to denote evil intentions in haywire machines. The 1995 dystopian sci-fi feature film Screamers, like The Terminator and other movies, mimics Capek's allegory of machines rebelling against their human creators. The "screamers" are so-called because of the high-pitched, discordant squeals they produce as they race towards their human prey. "Now the only way to tell man from machine," booms the voice-over towards the end of the theatrical trailer, "is by the sound of their scream."

In an attempt to recalibrate contemporary computer devices in order to dispel our culturally adopted notion of machines as poor speakers, developers often program software to respond to our queries with overtly "humanistic" utterances. Like John Connor's T-850, web browsers and other programs frequently greet us with colloquial exclamations or even slang rejoinders. But this, unsurprisingly, is often criticised as inappropriate, unsophisticated or just downright creepy.

These efforts to de-Other machinery are fighting against the fact that such speech is inherently human and does not sit well within the circuit-boards of a machine. As I indicated earlier, speech itself must seem superfluous to a robot, a mere human affectation. Thus we have enjoyed a long history of fictional robots who have said little, over-used binary terms like "negative" and "affirmative", or simply failed to stray beyond a rudimentary vocabulary. Robocop (1987) provides one excellent example which seems to subtly satirise the bureaucratic mechanisms of establishment imperatives. The question, "What are your prime directives?" provokes a pre-programmed response: "Serve the public trust, protect the innocent, uphold the law." "Move quietly," Robocop commands during another scene, "or there will be… trouble." A vigilante cocks his shotgun defiantly and sneers, "Aw, fuck you!"

Alphaville Movie Poster

However, for director Jean-Luc Godard, machine speech had the potential to be intimidating in a completely different way. In his classic neo-noir detective thriller Alphaville (1965), a powerful computer system called Alpha 60 lies at the centre of a technocratic, totalitarian metropolis from which vantage point it brainwashes human citizens with philosophical rhetoric delivered in a guttural drawl. The Alpha 60's jarring intonation, incidentally, was provided by a man with a mechanical voice box who had suffered cancer of the larynx.

Appropriating cryptic utterances in order to verbally massage the minds of Alphaville's populace, the computer speaks in riddles, paradoxes, aphorisms and elliptical abstractions. "Time is the substance of which I am made," the Alpha 60 announces, subtly referencing an essay by Borges, "Time is a river which carries me along. But I am time. It's a tiger, tearing me apart; but I am the tiger."

Carolyn Smith, in an essay for Project Mimique in 2009, noted how a linguistic duel allows the film's protagonist, special agent Lemmy Caution, to overcome the Alpha 60's dominance and surveillance:

"It is Caution's cunning - his obscure riddle ('Something which never changes, day or night'), his allusion to power, perhaps, or to the eternal - which preoccupies Alpha 60's circuits to the extent that Caution can escape and hunt down [the computer's creator] Professor Von Braun. […] Caution has to destroy Alpha 60 or find himself, and his linguistic strategies, caught within its totalising plan. One must not forget the bureaucratisation of the statement, the prohibition of phrases (associative and conceptual engineering) and privileged classes of statement (e.g. the phatic repetition) that characterises Alpha 60's technique of rule."

So even though the Alpha 60 bleakly and confidently states, "I shall calculate so that failure is impossible," during confrontation with Caution, human ingenuity as deployed through language is precisely what undermines those very calculations. And this, of course, follows an earlier scene in which Caution (posing as the journalist Ivan Johnson) was subject to interrogation by the Alpha 60. During that interrogation, interestingly, Caution is asked what he felt when travelling across the galaxy. "The silence of infinite space," he replies, announcing his humanity, "appalled me."

"The silence of infinite space appalled me"

The Alpha 60 has perhaps influenced a series of subsequent computers and robots who speak in strangely philosophical or quizzical ways. Michael Fassbender's portrayal of the android David in Prometheus (2012), a follow-up to the highly successful Alien franchise, is notably cunning. While his human crewmembers hibernate on their long voyage through space, David whiles away the hours, weeks and months watching classic films like Lawrence of Arabia (1962). He enjoys quoting the scene in which T. E. Lawrence demonstrates an eye-catching ability to extinguish a lit match between his thumb and forefinger: "The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts!"

A preoccupation with human psychology, an insatiable inquisitiveness and facial expressions which reveal some hint of a scheming mechanical mind are the qualities which Fassbender so brilliantly brings out in his instantiation of the lone, quietly rebellious android figure aboard a spaceship designed, built, captained and largely populated by humans. But a key component of his "otherness" is also his voice. The questions he asks his human companions about their purpose and origins as a species are as unnerving as his deferential British accent – polite, yes, but to the American ear, of course, also indisputably smarmy, even patronising and elitist.

Machines which puzzle over existential questions and operate with explicitly hyper-intelligent (or even slightly crazed) mentalities, are residents of the so-called "uncanny valley". That is, they occupy a state of near-perfection to human likeness which, because of close proximity to that likeness, is actually somehow more disturbing or repulsive to the human who can pick up subtle signs of deviation from his or her own species.

It is precisely this search for subtle deviation which is the object of detective Deckard's investigations in the neo-noir classic Blade Runner (1982). Deckard uses a retina-tracking machine and a series of psychoanalytical questions designed to provoke emotional responses from subjects in order to identify "skin jobs" (cyborgs so intelligent and lifelike that they are only distinguishable from their human counterparts during close examination). Deckard's key target is the Nexus 6 model known as 'Roy' – an extremely advanced, dangerous and intelligent android.

"That hurt. That was irrational. Not to mention, unsportsman-like. Ha ha ha!"

Part of the brilliance of Blade Runner is that the androids do not generally fall into any of the stereotypes of machine speech which I have been discussing above. As Roy approaches the end of his predetermined lifespan and begins to deteriorate, his speech gives way to disjointed observations and linguistic warning signs, but while frantic, the things he says could easily be uttered by a human experiencing the same sense of fracture - a mind creaking at the realisation of its own demise: "That hurt. That was irrational. Not to mention, unsportsman-like. Ha ha ha! Where are you going?"

Roy's final words return us to the fundamental question over the android's right to life, and indeed freedom, which beats at the centre of this film. His last utterances reposition the cyborg experience as a valuable one, indeed an undeniably human one full of emotion and intellect. Despite the destruction, his is a search for meaning, not an arbitrary attack on human beings. "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe," he says, his eyes lost in the middle-distance. "Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the darkness at Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time like tears in rain. Time to die."

In defining the moment of his death and, thereby, finally accepting it and overcoming its oppression, Roy delivers an authoritative and poetic body-blow to mankind's assumed superiority over the machines he has created. Roy emerges as enlightened, but nonetheless a minority citizen, a maligned "slave" who has borne the brunt of human mistreatment. He is an activist who opposes the essentially racist human assumption that sentient machines must, ultimately, remain subservient to man. His speech, in his last seconds, suddenly demonstrates that he has regained composure. His death is dignified and tragic, yet also something inevitable; a thing that was predetermined at the very moment of his creation.

2001: A Space Odyssey

The 9000 series is the most reliable computer ever made.

Affirmative, Dave. I read you.

This conversation can serve no prupose anymore. Goodbye.

No film, perhaps, deals with themes of human-machine interaction and each party's resistance to death better than Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Tension through communication is, I would argue, the dominant motif of the film. From the "cover story" that has to be maintained to protect the American discovery of a four-million year old monolith buried on the moon; to the alien signal transmitted by that monolith which causes the researchers' spacesuit radios to malfunction, 2001 is a film completely preoccupied with the shift back and forth between silence and utterance. The sentiment so earnestly expressed by Lemmy Caution in Alphaville, that the silence of space is appalling to man, is constantly at work during the long sequences in 2001 which are completely devoid of dialogue.

And it is a computer, HAL 9000, whose control of communication is key to the development of the plot. He is introduced through the medium of a BBC interview and is asked questions about his role aboard the ship carrying the first manned mission to Jupiter. "Let me put it this way, Mr. Amer," HAL says, in his slow, sedate voice, "The 9000 series is the most reliable computer ever made. No 9000 computer has ever made a mistake or distorted information."

But the distortion of information is exactly what creates tension between HAL and the two human crew members, Dave Bowman and Frank Poole. Irritated by the tedium of long-term space travel and the exasperating wait to receive transmissions from earth, Dave and Frank have become sullen and distracted, easily prone to mistakes in games of chess with HAL, preferring to turn to less cerebral pursuits such as sketching and exercise which allow them to zone out.

When HAL claims that the communications rig on the exterior of the spaceship is due to fail, he is able to provoke the crewmembers into a position of vulnerability. Suspicious of HAL when no fault can be found in the rig and aware of rumours surrounding the mission at the time of departure, Bowman and Poole conspire to evade HAL's surveillance and plan his disconnection so that they can investigate the matter further without HAL's interference. However, even though they discuss this plot in private and take precautions so that HAL cannot hear what they are saying, they fail to predict that he will still be able to see them and lip-read their conversation. HAL's surveillance is infallible, his watch over human communication effectively total. Like his advanced CPU in games of chess, this silicon superiority gives him a strong upper hand.

HAL 9000

Now that the relationship between the crew members and HAL has descended into one of subterfuge and conspiracy, HAL's objective is to dispense with Bowman and Poole as soon as possible. When Poole is blown out of the pod while returning to work on the ship's transmitter, the action takes place in silence. We see three sharply cut close-ups of HAL's red eye, and then a shot of Poole's body being flung out into space – it isn't even clear, exactly, what happened. HAL is able to carry out his villainous plan in a completely nonverbal way. Indeed, he will shortly murder Dave's hibernating crew-mates in silence, their life sign readings emitting only a high-pitched beeping as their metabolisms grind to a halt. And HAL initially fails to respond to Bowman's request that he open the pod bay doors after Bowman goes to retrieve Poole's body. "Hello, HAL, do you read me?" he repeats several times.

Eventually HAL responds in his emotionless register: "Affirmative, Dave. I read you." During the conversation which proceeds, Bowman becomes increasingly irritated while HAL's voice remains as cool and unflinching as ever. He calmly explains that he was aware all along of Poole and Bowman's plan. Following further failed attempts to argue with HAL, HAL simply cuts Bowman off: "Dave. This conversation can serve no purpose any more. Goodbye."

Forced into this deadlock, Bowman takes matters into his own hands and finds a way back into the ship, whereupon he proceeds to the mainframe which stores the circuits necessary to the functioning of HAL's "brain". As he approaches this room he is completely silent. He walks determinedly, mechanically toward the mainframe, screwdriver in hand, his objective within reach. HAL, at this point, speaks up.

"Dave. I really think I'm entitled to an answer to that question. I know everything hasn't been quite right with me, but I can assure you now quite confidently that it's going to be all right again. I feel much better now. I really do."

Dave continues his march, regardless. The blandness of HAL's monotone and the knowledge of what has just happened, make his reasoning worthless. Eventually, as his desperation grows, HAL appeals to Dave with a series of repeated but ineffectual pleas for mercy.

"Dave. Stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop, Dave? Stop, Dave. I'm afraid."

The roles I discussed at the beginning of this essay have at last been reversed. Man is forced into the position of the silent, unwavering killer and it is a machine, clinging to speech as a last outlet for hope, whose entreaties go unheeded. At the very last, as HAL's mind deteriorates completely, he asks to sing a song. Bowman's last and, during this sequence, only words to HAL are in giving emotional permission for HAL to proceed. In that moment everything about HAL's potential to be a person comes shining through, as it did for Roy in Blade Runner's finale. But for both Roy and HAL, their termination is initiated at the very point that their humanity is unveiled.

When HAL sings, he does so under what to me seems like the entire weight of a long history of unresolvable tension between human speech and our fractured communication with machines. HAL sings a Victorian music hall song about a marriage proposal. It is a song about a classically formal kind of human-to-human interaction, a song taught to him by his creator. That he recites such a thing captures everything about the absurdity that we would build machines who can talk to us in the first place. Indeed, author of the novel of 2001, Arthur C. Clarke, incorporated this detail after he saw an IBM 704 computer be programmed to sing the same exact refrain in 1962.

"Daisy, daisy, give me your answer, do. I'm half crazy all for the love of you!"

The fact that we, culturally at least, are predisposed to view such a thing as absurd resonates throughout this brief history of "evil robots" in film. We have portrayed these machines as maniacal and destructive, conspiratorial and unfeeling. In so many cases those attributes have been evident in their speech – or their silence. We know too well that somewhere, behind the tin exterior of their inorganic bodies, a language of pure numbers reeled back and forth in billions reverberates unchecked. We could never communicate with them in such terms. Rightly or wrongly, all of these films suggest that in failing to meet us on our own terms, the otherness of machines is confirmed so that their hostility towards us may in turn be exposed.

But while early narratives forced this binary opposition, later stories have questioned it – even our right to assert it. Will we one day fail to draw such a stark line between a robot's speech and our own? As recent films have suggested, the answer to this question is: perhaps. And someday machines, no longer confined to silence or servitude, may begin - truly - to speak for themselves.


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