When I was a kid my parents took my sister and I to Autoworld in Flint, Michigan. It was supposed to be an amusement park dedicated to educating the world on the importance and innovation of the auto industry. One of the first things visitors saw upon entering the complex was a robot that welcomed you to the “wonderful world of automated assembly,” which was transforming the way we built cars in America. I vividly remember my dad leaning down to whisper in my ear, “Yeah, and I wonder how the guys that’s putting out of work feel about it?”
In this hyper-connected technology age it’s hard to imagine a time when people were afraid of robots, but they were. We were. Maybe not afraid like we’re afraid of nuclear Armageddon, but there was certainly anxiety there and uncertainty in regard to who would be in control if and when the robots got as smart as their human masters.
That’s the theme of this short film created for The Bell System by Jim Henson in 1963 and unearthed by the AT&T Archives. While lacking in subtlety (spoiler alert: the robots NEED us!), it’s an early look at Henson’s ability to humanize objects and inject them with personality. It’s also a fascinating look at how the early tension between man and machine played into our cultural psyche.
Now please excuse me as I tweet this from my iPhone…