Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Why was I programmed to love Screech?: 12 wastes of artificial intelligence

Saved By The Bell's Screech with his robot companion/captive, Kevin.

The dream of artificial intelligence has been around since the dawn of fiction, stirring fantasy and stoking anxiety about a world populated by sentient machines and mankind’s place in it. But artificial intelligence isn’t always synonymous with artificial wisdom. For every Deep Blue or HAL 9000, there’s a self-aware computer that’s not worth the silicon that was frittered away on its construction—a waste of artificial intelligence that manifests itself in the real world via whatever crazy sex-bot Japan invented today, and in the world of entertainment in examples like the dozen assembled here. All of them take the gleaming, terrifying future promised by AI and squander it on technology that has no real reason to exist.


1. V.I.C.I., Small Wonder (1985-1989)

The Voice Input Child Identicant—“Vicki” for short—was supposedly created to help handicapped children, though viewers of the late-’80s sitcom Small Wonder would be forgiven for just now learning that. In fact, Vicki’s only purpose seemed to be serving as a surrogate daughter to her inventor, Ted Lawson, and as an extra burden to his family. That, plus providing intermittent comic relief in the form of robot slapstick and punchlines based on overly literal interpretations delivered in a monotone—none of which helped anyone (least of all those who watched the show). Considering Ted already had one child—and that kid’s repeated attempts to exploit Vicki suggested he could have benefited from some extra parenting—the creation of a robotic 10-year-old girl just so it could learn to love him is little more than an exercise in narcissism, not to mention an incredible waste of technology. [Sean O’Neal]

2. C.H.O.M.P.S., C.H.O.M.P.S. (1979)

As a concept, a robotic guard dog is not a terrible idea. But a robotic guard dog that’s also cuddly is the sort of invention that would only be dreamed up by a movie studio who’s concerned about alienating family audiences, as American International Pictures did with 1979’s C.H.O.M.P.S. The film—one of the first live-action efforts from animation giant Hanna-Barbera—was originally meant to be the story of a superpowered robot Doberman, an intimidating species that would lend itself well to being the “Canine HOMe Protection System” promised by the title. Unfortunately for the studio’s box-office prospects and anyone else who had valuables to protect, the producers insisted on a last-minute change for C.H.O.M.P.S. to more of a “Benji-type,” giving their robot dog the power of being super-fast and super-strong, but mostly just of being super-adorable—and all too easily dognapped. As a result, critics and audiences found C.H.O.M.P.S. as easy to disregard as any criminal would. [Sean O’Neal]


3. Chip, Not Quite Human (1987)

The world is positively crawling with 17-year-old boys, who are already among the most useless of all man’s creations. So it’s not quite clear why Dr. Jonas Carson feels the need to create Chip, the android teenager of the Not Quite Human series, other than just because he can. (Though come to think of it, the same could be said of all teenagers.) Carson “adopts” Chip—played by Alan Thicke and Jay Underwood, respectively, in the Disney adaptations of Seth McEvoy’s books—and even enrolls him in high school, where he mostly exists to annoy people with his naïveté and to embarrass Carson’s already perfectly good daughter. Meanwhile, much of the Not Quite Human saga entails Carson’s attempts to keep Chip from falling into the hands of the military, even though most fathers with sons that worthless would be eager to sign him up. [Sean O’Neal]


4. Jinx, SpaceCamp (1986)

In a rare display of wasteful government spending, NASA apparently burns its money on robot sidekicks, whose sole function seems to be tooling around Cape Canaveral and getting in the way. That’s true of the fictional NASA seen in 1986’s SpaceCamp, anyway (surely the real NASA has better things to waste its money on), which finds the independently minded Jinx bumbling around Mission Control, getting into trouble with his human pal Max, and mostly just fucking things up—like when he launches Max’s astronaut training class into orbit, just because Max wants to go. Jinx was originally created to work in the farthest reaches of space, but he was deemed unsuitable thanks to his constant overheating and his taking orders way too literally (a common refrain of the comically useless robot). But rather than being redesigned or scrapped, Jinx is just left to his own aimless devices, seemingly on the off chance that a visiting boy might need a friend. With squandered resources like that, it’s no wonder we still haven’t colonized the moon. [Sean O’Neal]


5. Kevin, Saved By The Bell (1989-1992)

Short of being programmed to feel pain, there is perhaps no crueler fate for a robot than being programmed to hang out with Screech. That’s the existential prison inhabited by Saved By The Bell’s Kevin, whom Bayside High’s oddly idiotic engineering genius created solely to live in his bedroom and be his friend, without even being given the consolation of a cool robot name. Kevin is glimpsed occasionally throughout the show’s early years, his digital smile and flat wisecracks masking his deep inner torment as he doles out helpful suggestions and does Screech’s dirty work, like tutoring Kelly or serving as his magician’s assistant. In a parting insult, Kevin suddenly disappears around the show’s fourth season, never to be seen nor discussed again. Hopefully he found a way to self-destruct. [Sean O’Neal]


6. Dot Matrix, Spaceballs (1987)

Mel Brooks’ Star Wars parody Spaceballs obviously needed a C-3PO, but besides the comedy, there’s no real reason to have Dot Matrix around. After all, for all his fussing and flailing, C-3PO managed to prove pretty useful with the sporadic translation, as well as sometimes being mistaken for a god. But as a similar valet to Princess Vespa, the Joan Rivers-voiced Dot is mostly good for back-sass and kvetching—a quality no one particularly needs in a service droid. Meanwhile, her only programmed powers seem to be “super vision,” applicable only in very specific situations involving the Schwartz, and her “virgin alarm,” which could easily be replaced by an old-fashioned chastity belt. Mostly, Dot is just an overbearing aunt in an even more clunky mechanical body; if she wasn’t good for the occasional one-liner, she’d belong on the scrap heap. [Sean O’Neal]


7. Urkelbot, Family Matters (1991/1992)

In Genesis 1:27, it says that Urkel created Urkelbot in his own image, and things got really weird from there. As portrayed in the Family Matters episodes “Robo-Nerd” and “Robo-Nerd II,” the AI Urkel was built mostly to win a contest, but it quickly took on a life of its own and tried to win Laura’s affections with force. Just like mankind, Urkelbot had to be destroyed for its own good, though it was eventually resurrected and reprogrammed to solve a series of convenience-store robberies. Still, a sexually aggressive robot was too dangerous to have around with no outlet for its affections, so human Urkel created Laurabot to keep it company—and the two bots were never seen again. Fun fact: The man inside the Urkelbot suit is Michael Chambers, a.k.a. Boogaloo Shrimp of the Breakin’ movies. [Josh Modell]


8. Tik-Tok, Return To Oz (1985)

When Disney made a sequel to The Wizard Of Oz, it went decidedly darker, combining two of L. Frank Baum’s subsequent novels, The Marvelous Land Of Oz and Ozma Of Oz, into one bleak movie. What it didn’t do was give the slightest thought to justifying Tik-Tok. One of the earliest examples of a robot in literature, Tik-Tok is a rotund, copper-constructed mechanical man that requires periodic wind-ups for his movement, speech, and thought. And while Baum originally had the character serve as Dorothy’s protector, Return To Oz inexplicably makes Tik-Tok the sole representative of the entire Royal Army Of Oz—a literal army of one. Which might have made sense, were Tik-Tok not absolutely useless when it comes to warfare, or much of anything for that matter. He runs out of brains. He falls over apropos of nothing. And while his hapless flailing occasionally succeeds in taking out some of Dorothy’s dumber nemeses, his general lack of anything resembling fitness for soldier duty makes him a prime example of an artificial intelligence that’s wholly incapable of serving its supposed function. [Alex McCown]


9. Alsatia Zevo, Toys (1992)

When Leslie Zevo’s (Robin Williams) mother dies, his toymaker father decides he’ll speed up the grieving process by creating Alsatia (Joan Cusack) as a companion and guardian for his devastated son. It’s a sweet idea, though one that means instead of allowing Leslie to properly mourn, move on, and form bonds with real humans, he’ll remain forever stunted, saddled with an erratic nuisance of a little sister who reinforces his socially limiting behavior with her own bizarreness. Even as Leslie struggles to keep his father’s company afloat, Alsatia spends her days eating white bread sandwiches with mayonnaise and multivitamins, trying on doll clothes, and slipping off to sing in the bathroom. After her accidental destruction, her reconstruction falls on Leslie—yet another responsibility he’s inherited from his father. Maybe someone should have just gotten him a dog. [Becca James]


10. H.E.R.B.I.E., The Fantastic Four (1978)

Technically, the whiny robot with Frank Welker’s voice in the 1978 cartoon version of The Fantastic Four had all sorts of functions, like pressing buttons and doing calculations for the superhero team. (Presumably that’s why he was given those unwieldy vending-machine-claw hands, because they look so functional for poking at all the bleeping lights on the era’s wall-sized computers.) In practice, though, he had one major function: to make sure the team was still the Fantastic Four, instead of the less-alliterative Fantastic Three. Urban legend has it that the Human Torch was booted from the cartoon out of a fear that impressionable tykes would see him and set themselves on fire in an attempt to be cool; actually, the character was under contract to a different company at the time. So H.E.R.B.I.E. was subbed in as the fourth member of the team, serving much the same narrative use by being the smartass who got under the Thing’s rocky orange skin all the time. Mostly, though, he bragged about his intellect, griped about humans, and dodged questions about his awful acronym of a name, which stands for Humanoid Experimental Robot, B-Type, Integrated Electronics. No word on what the A-Type Humanoid Experimental Robot (H.E.R.A.I.E.?) was meant to do, but if he was even less functional and useful than H.E.R.B.I.E., no wonder they scrapped him. [Tasha Robinson]


11. Sam The Robot, Sesame Street (1972-1976)

On Sesame Street, even the lowliest Twiddlebug serves some sort of purpose within the series’ universe and curriculum: The Two-Headed Monster advocates for cooperation, the extraterrestrial Yips Yips show that wonder can be found in the everyday, and Grundgetta lets viewers know that everyone deserves love—even a shaggy green curmudgeon who lives in a garbage can. In the case of Sam The Robot, a lack of a clear purpose was both the character’s raison d’être and the cause of its demise. The so-called “Super Automatic Machine” rolled onto Sesame Street from unknown origins in 1972, claiming a Swiss-army-knife-like versatility and touting its mechanized perfection. But annoying the other residents proved to be Sam’s true function, as his inability to complete any task put the lie to its claims that “machines are better than people.” The character’s design was one of Sesame Street’s most distinctive—the type of thing L. Frank Baum might’ve dreamed up if he’d built puppets for Jim Henson—but a lack of worthwhile storylines sped Sam toward obsolescence. Last appearing in the show’s seventh season, the Super Automatic Machine proved to be pointless on the screen as well as on the page. [Erik Adams]


12. Various useless robots, Futurama (1999-2013)

Here’s the sharpest edge of Futurama’s satire: Technology may keep advancing, surpassing even our wildest of projections, but it will still be people—selfish, clueless, hubristic people—who are building and operating it. There’s no better demonstration of this guiding philosophy than the show’s ever-expanding assembly line of robots with no conceivable reason for existing. It’s bad enough that the ones with a clear function have odd design flaws, like the serious drinking problem that’s inexplicably programmed into our favorite bending unit. But what’s really baffling is the sheer number of useless “themed” robots wandering the streets of New New York. For example, who would build a little orphan machine like Tinny Tim, complete with built-in crutch appendage? Or a trio of socially inept nerd frat-bots, whose lone purpose appears to be annoying a crusty old dean until their CPUs crash? And don’t get us started on whatever sick fuck created Hedonism Bot. There’s playing God, and then there’s building senseless sentient abominations that only Caligula could appreciate. [A.A. Dowd]


Check out the trailer for Ex Machina here and RSVP for a special advance screening on 4/16 here.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter