Monday, October 10, 2011

Taking Something Away From the Man

Real Steel is the tale of Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman), a washed-up boxer in over his head in the world of robot boxing.

Fuelled by the demand to watch two participants entirely obliterate each other to the death, robot boxing has seen automatons replace human fighters. Think of it as Bloodsport as waged by droids.

Kenton's life is that of mounting defeats and ever-increasing debt until he swings a shady deal for custody of his son Max (Dakota Goyo) with the boy's wealthy uncle. Max eventually helps Charlie stage a whirlwind comeback to a championship match with the robot boxing world champion, a robot by the name of Zeus.

In the world of Real Steel, human boxers no longer compete. Outpaced by the rise of Mixed Martial Arts and eventually cast aside entirely in favour of robots, the risk once accepted by human fighters is now shunted onto these robots.

In a perfect world, something like that would be great... for everyone but the fighters themselves.

People who frequently watch science fiction films have probably seen Star Trek: Insurrection, wherein the crew of the USS Enterprise travel to a planet populated by the Ba'Ku. They are believed to be a primitive society who has never developed the technology necessary to travel through space, but in actuality are an advanced society that has chosen to live in nearly Ahmish fashion.

One of the Ba'Ku, Sojef (Daniel Hugh Kelly), tells the crew that "we believe that when you make a machine to do the work of a man, you take something away from the man."

There is something to be said for this. But when applied to basic, day-to-day, menial tasks, that is one thing. When applied to longer-term pursuits, it's entirely another.

In Real Steel, robot boxers such as Atom, Zeus and Midas are controlled by humans, but the operators are reduced to the level of software. They operate the fighter, but never themselves fight. Theoretically, they experience all the thrill of fighting without ever actually having to take a punch.

But unlike with human righters, the operator is entirely interchangable. The operator may be able to pilot their fighter to victory, but never really win themselves. They may pilot their fighter to a championship, but never really become the champion.

The operators are at very little risk. As the film shows -- although it doesn't depict a Robot Jox-esque disaster (or, for that matter, a Reno Airraces-esque disaster) -- the operators and their spectators do face the risk of being injured by flying debris.

But they aren't at risk of being harmed by another fighter. They never have to take the punch, they never have to be knocked out. They'll never experience a concussion, never be afflicted by post-concussion syndrome.

Which is nice. But is it worth surrendering the opportunity to enjoy their successes for themselves, in their own name?

Those who would gleefully ban boxing, MMA fighting, air racing, or any other hazardous sport in favour of some kind of remote-controlled alternative would almost certainly believe it is.

As the example of Charlie Kenton suggests, the competitors themselves probably wouldn't be so keen. And while the film predictably concludes with Kenton celebrating having led his robot to a triumph of sorts, it's fair to speculate on whether his satisfaction would last, or if it would be eclipsed by the opportunity to step into the ring and win a championship with his own fists.

If humanity starts building machines to pursue human excellence, people like Charlie Kenton would be denied the opportunity to achieve it for themselves.

Humans denied the opportunity to pursue human excellence: it's as chilling an idea in a fictional world as it is in the real world.

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