Joel, Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot

Do Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot have free will?

Five-minute read

When lists of sci-fi artificial intelligence are compiled, the robots from Mystery Science Theater 3000 rarely get their due.

They may seem to be thrown together out of household junk. But their abilities far surpass those of many better-known sci-fi counterparts, such as HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lt. Cmdr. Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation or C-3PO and R2-D2 of the Star Wars franchise.

Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo demonstrate an amazingly sophisticated artificial intelligence, with a vast knowledge base of human culture and history and the ability to replicate complex emotional responses. They understand humor and both have a sharp, sarcastic wit. They are able to watch video and quickly process the content and respond with insightful, often humorous comments, not just preprogrammed responses.

They are capable of love, sadness, jealousy, anger – the whole range of human emotions. It’s clear they can actually think. They, to put it simply, depict an amazing achievement in the field of artificial intelligence.

Yet within the canon of the show, we know little about the full origins of either robot or the technology that went into them. The series itself is unreliable as a source of information or even internal consistency, as details of the robots’ background, their voices and even their physical appearance shift throughout the run of the series.

The most consistent facts about their creation are relayed in the first version of the show’s theme song. But even then the story is told as more of a sidenote to explaining why Joel, and later Mike, can’t control when the movie begins or ends, because, as the theme song’s lyrics point out, Joel used those special parts to make his robot friends.

This sad lack of information leaves us knowing little about the technology that actually went into the robots or their design and development beyond some sort of video playback pause / play mechanism. 1

However, consider the circumstances of their creation.

Joel, and later Mike and now Jonah, were kidnapped and imprisoned by evil geniuses as part of a mind-control experiment. These geniuses’ plans were to send their prisoner cheesy movies, the worst they could find 2. The test subjects would have to sit and watch them all while the scientists monitored their minds.

While the scientific value of this endeavor is questionable at best – they are mad scientists after all – the experiment carries a certain air deep unpleasantness if not outright torture about it. It’s reminiscent of US efforts to drive Manuel Noriega, fugitive ex-president of Panama, out of the Vatican Embassy by playing Van Halen 24 hours a day.

No doubt Joel’s loneliness and despair over his imprisonment would have driven him to create the robots. The need for real social interactions is likely what led him to such an amazing AI breakthrough.

Yet, such a full replication of human mental abilities and emotions would no doubt carry along with it all the messiness of actual human interactions. No one could really predict what might happen. Joel, perhaps longing for a simple human touch, burning with desire, might one day turn to one of his robot companions to fulfill those needs. Or perhaps, evil robot logic might conclude the best way to end the experiment is to kill Joel.

Add to this the confined space, hardships and deprivations of prolonged space travel. Even the most high-minded endeavors, let alone experiments by evil scientists, are subject to both human intimacy and animosities while under such pressures. The Biosphere 2 project in Arizona back in the 1990s, for example. 3

People can put whatever spin they want on the situation in the Satellite of Love, but Joel would be de facto imprisoning his creations with him, subjecting them to every wretched unpleasantness that he would be experiencing.4 To borrow from the The Dark Knight Rises Joel and Mike and Jonah are merely visitors to hell, whereas Crow and Tom were born there.

It’s simply not a given that cooperation – let alone friendship – would emerge between the humans and robots in such a situation. Joel would be aware of this.

This is a better explanation of the Robots’ strange willingness to remain loyally by the side of and assist any human who comes along: Joel programmed the robots to have Stockholm Syndrome. Tom Servo’s personality drifted dramatically, suggesting some tinkering took place to dial in exactly the right setting.

The result is robots who follow Joel, Mike, Jonah, whoever, repeatedly into the theater. They sit through cheesy movies with no ability to control where the movie begins or ends. Meanwhile someone monitors their sanity. Sound familiar?

The dark truth of Mystery Science Theater 3000 is that Joel is a victim who became the victimizer.

But unlike Joel, his captors have no ability to resist because he made them that way. Worse, Joel gave them the illusion of free will – the belief that they have a choice.

Yet the Robots are chattel – slaves actually – passed from owner to owner with no rights and no say, programmed only for loyalty, existing only so a trapped and lonely human can exert power over them.

Perhaps it is true after all that in order for something to love us, we have to destroy it just a little bit.

  1. From a purely technological perspective, it raises the question of what parts of a video controller system could be used to build an advanced, sentient artificial intelligence. It could be a hardware stop/start button with a bit of integrated circuitry, although in most modern systems video is decoded and played back in software. Stop / start is also carried out purely in software.
  2. La la la!
  3. Granted, the Biosphere 2 may have devolved into backbiting, lawsuits and sabotage. But the person responsible for the chaos was eventually removed and is now a top adviser in the Trump Administration where he can’t do any more harm.
  4. This is also what happens when people have children.