Compassion, Justice, and Trusting One’s Enemy in iRobot

By Muoki Musau

The director of the movie I, Robot describes the movie as a believable world not too far in the future. Set in 2035, it tells the story of Detective Del Spooner who has a deep distrust of the idea that robots are companions to human beings. The story is a “whodunit” mystery that revolves around his internal prejudice and the external situation where a Dr. Alfred Lanning is found dead at USR from an apparent suicide. Dr. Lanning is the “father of robotics” who created the humanoid NS-5 robot, and wrote the Three Laws program which governs the robots’ actions, and so his death inside the US Robotics and Mechanical Men (USR) headquarters raises the suspicions which Detective Spooner, referred mainly as “Spoon”, has about the danger robots pose to human beings.

Within the murder mystery is the story of Detective Spooner himself, and the journey he goes through in understanding what it means to pursue justice. A caveat in the movie is that Dr. Lanning leaves a holographic program which responds to Spoon’s questions, but only “the right questions.” His pursuit of justice and the common good is never in question; Lanning’s program guides Spoon throughout the movie in seeing the bigger picture about the truth about robots, but also the truth about himself. These are the two plots running concurrently throughout; as Spoon gets closer to the truth about Lanning’s death, he also sees himself and his commitment to justice in a way he couldn’t see heretofore. Spoon is right in that there is a problem; the trouble is that he doesn’t see the problem within himself.

Embedded in Dr. Lanning’s hologram message is the sign off message: “That, detective, is the right question.” It guides him throughout the story, and is the catalyst for his own revolution of compassion within himself. He is a detective, and wants to protect society from a future which he sees as unsafe for human beings. His intention is good, but he is blinded by prejudice to see beyond his hate.

In the movie, the robot suspected of “murdering” Dr. Lanning is the doctor’s personal NS-5 robot, Sonny. He is equipped with a mechanism which gives him the ability to choose for himself what course of action is most agreeable with the letter of the Three Laws of Robotics, or with their spirit. He is not bound to a strictly logical framework, but can interpret reality and choose between right and wrong. The server on which the entire robotics infrastructure rests is named VIKI (Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence); as the movie reaches the final scene, it becomes clear that Dr. Lanning committed suicide in an effort to get the S.O.S. out: as VIKI continues to comprehend the Three Laws, she will arrive at their logical conclusion, which, in this case, is that humans can’t govern themselves, and robots can help them commune without killing each other.

In one scene near the end of the movie, Sonny and VIKI exchange a dialogue where she asserts, “my logic is undeniable, don’t you see?” to which Sonny replies, “yes, but it seems too…heartless.” In typical mystery fashion, VIKI is eventually destroyed; in a twist of irony, it is Detective Spooner who discovers what it means to strive for justice from his trusting Sonny, a former enemy.

The more important revolution beyond (or, behind) the almost-realized robot one is the one which occurs in Detective Spooner. As he learns (struggles) to trust Sonny the robot, he learns one of the most important aspects of justice: compassion. Although he does not explicitly show affection towards Sonny, he overcomes his prejudice and through proximity and trust, sees the real threat to the community. The reason I posit compassion as the learned disposition is that at the end of the movie, one of Spoon’s sidekicks, Dr. Susan Calvin, makes the remark towards him, “(pointing at her heart) There’s something in there after all.” Justice with clouded vision, in the long run, is no justice at all.

In an increasingly diverse world with ethnic connections (and collisions) happening in person and online, the future(s) we envision will inevitably look different, just as we all look, think, and believe differently. A bright future cannot be one which is motivated by an exclusionary impulse against another group; it cannot be inspired by vengeance or hate, or at the expense of another’s wellbeing. In the movie iRobot, Detective Spooner develops a disposition of compassion, not a mere passive active state, because he now sees the world differently because the world outside, and the future ahead, is not clouded but is brightened by goodwill towards the one who was previously his enemy.

Muoki Musau is Kenyan born and bred, raised in Northern Virginia (Ashburn) from 2001-2013. He moved to Hamilton, MA in 2013 to pursue seminary education at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he graduated Cum Laude in May 2016 (M.A. Religion and M.A. Theology). He served as the chair for the Black Student Association for the 2015-2016 academic year, hosting the first student-led panel discussion on discrimination and the black church experience. He is interested in reconciliation work, especially pertaining to racial reconciliation as a method for political action and activism. He is influenced by the work and life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and draws on his thought extensively as it relates to Christian action and responsibility.

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