Technology has never been able to move as quickly as the imagination of storytellers and the history of every medium is loaded with a roster of wonderfully conceived robots of all shapes, sizes and functions.
This fascination is easy to understand. The concept of the robot is so open-ended it leaves room for a limitless number of designs and concepts. But perhaps more interesting is that, ironically, robots are often used to cut through to a greater truth about humanity. Others, meanwhile, simply cater to our most primal urges by smashing everything in sight. Either way, these cyborgs, androids, drones, etc, are a staple everyone’s pop-culture diet.
Using an incredibly complex polling method, we’ve compiled a list of the 50 greatest robots in pop culture history, opening the floodgates to all sorts of suggestions, whether it be robots from films, TV series, cartoons, books, songs or actual fully functioning robots (there may be one or two iffy selections – no letters please).
Compiled by Declan Aylward, David Bolger, Seán Earley, Colm Gorey, Brogen Hayes, Carol Killeen, Niamh King, Ian Maleney, Jesse Melia, Rachael Murphy, Laura O’Brien, Jason Robinson, Stephen Rogers and Dean Van Nguyen
As seen in: Dr. Who
The Daleks are not actually robots. Their alien creatures from the planet Skaro, encased in cylinder-shaped ‘travel machines’ that, through the work of some evil experiments, were left with no concept of compassion or love. Instead they survive solely on hatred and malice, though their constant efforts to destroy all non-Dalek life forms are relentlessly thwarted by the ever-valiant Doctor Who.
Introduced in 1963, the good doctor’s eternal enemies were an instant hit. Killed off in the very first episode, they were soon brought back due to huge popular demand. Throughout the sixties, the Daleks took over British popular culture, immediately recognisable along with their lovable catchphrase “Exterminate!”. What followed was known as ‘Dalekmania’ as the Daleks surfaced time and time again, from the music of The Go-Go’s to the Oxford Dictionary. They were even put on a stamp, a lasting reminder of the British nation’s love for large, destructive, pseudo-robots, with a penchant for trying to kill a national treasure. Niamh King
As seen in: Transformers
Transformers has been around for quite some time. The toy, animated cartoon and film series have spawned hundreds of different Autobots, Decepticons, Dinobots, Dancebots, Sandwichbots; the list is endless. But in this vast fictional world of cybernetic betrayal and danger, one transformer stands out simply because he is the most evil and, therefore, the coolest. Decepticon leader Megatron is a soulless, irredeemable menace. And to cap it off, his name is Megatron, which in itself oozes superiority. Any name which starts with the word “mega” is a definite signifier of confidence and self belief. Even in the first Transformer movie, released in 2007, he awakens from a century spanning cryogenic sleep and happily states “I am Megatron!” before transforming into a jet and flying away.
Megatron’s role over the years has generally been that of a dominant battlefield overlord with few equals. He is at his happiest when battling his nemesis, Optimus Prime, and uttering his rather brilliant sayings such as “Lesser creatures are the playthings of my will” and, my personal favourite, “Everything is fodder”. Jesse Melia
As seen in: South Park
The only thing more terrifying than a regular sized Barbara Streisand is a giant, mechanical Barbara Streisand. An early episode of South Park saw the star procured the Triangle of Zinthar, which completes the Diamond of Pantheos, allowing her to change into this monstrosity. All right, so this isn’t exactly the most scientifically sound example of a robot on this list. Still though, Mecha-Streisand boasts incredible strength, nose lasers and a Japanese theme tune. Neither a giant robotic Leonard Maltin nor a huge Sidney Poitier turtle can match her toe-to-toe.
Mecha-Streisand made another appearance in the series’ 200th episode with a whole new arsenal of mayhem. Her right arm was now a chainsaw, and missile launchers had been added to her arsenal. Not to mention nipple steam when she roars. Eek. Laura O’Brien
Created by: Dr. Michael J. Freeman
2-XL’s simple design manipulated audio cassettes to give its user an interactive experience using a four button control panel. So well was the system’s execution that on the first couple of plays, it had our juvenile selves really believing we were talking to an actual robot.
There were actually two versions of 2-XL, with the original being introduced in 1978. It looked more like a brick than a robot and used more limited 8-track tapes, but the idea was the same. In 1992 the robot was given a facelift, and the advent of more modern cassettes allowed a greater amount of interactivity. The creator Michael J. Freeman provided 2-XL’s voice himself, and is probably responsible for the trademark phrase: “Thank you for turning me on,” that kick started each tape. No doubt his own little gag for our grown-up selves to chuckle at years later. Dean Van Nguyen
46. ‘The Robots’
Recorded by: Kraftwerk
When Kraftwerk released ‘The Robots’ as a single in 1978, the electronic music pioneers seemed to be goading people with a refrain of “We are the robots.” It added fuel to what any paranoid crackpot with too much time on his hands had long suspected: That music this artificial, this cold and clinical, this electronic, this good, couldn’t really be created by anything but a machine. So confident in their deception were Kraftwerk that this ultra sophisticated android band didn’t even attempt to appear human. Going so far as to assume the German nationality, that most efficient and emotionless of people, and appearing in the video for ‘The Robots’ with blank stares and jerky rhythmic movements. After being out of the spotlight for the best part of two decades they reappeared a few years ago appearing older, as if they had aged. The only real explanation is that they had recently installed Microsoft’s latest aging software, I suppose. Stephen Rogers
Created by: Honda
ASIMO (Advanced Step Innovative Mobility) was created by car manufacturing giant Honda at its research and development centre in Japan in the hope that the machine could help find cures for diseases and be utilised in war. Standing at only 130 centimetres and weighing 54 kilograms, he would make a very child-like war machine, looking more like a tiny astronaut. ASIMO can, however, run at speeds of up to 6 km/h and costs around US$1m to produce. There are only around 60 in existence, most of them are in Japan at Honda Research, and the newer models even have lots of lovely added features which help the machine interact better with us humans, including advanced postures and gestures, and facial recognition. Carol Killeen
44.The Robot from Rocky IV
As seen in: Rocky IV
In the final scene of Rocky IV, Sylvester Stallone delivers a speech that supposedly ended the Cold War. This, however, is not the most memorable contribution the film gave the world. At the beginning of the movie, Rocky gifts his brother-in-law Paulie with the infamous robot, in return for the ungrateful “I told you I wanted a sports car!” reply. The robot goes on to prove its worth is 10 times that of a Miata. Having some seriously advanced artificial intelligence for 1985, it can respond to the requests of its human masters. However, the relationship between Paulie and the robot takes a turn for the very weird when we discover the robots has seemingly transferred from male to female. “She loves me,” Paulie says affectionately. Everyone present seems happy to ignore this eccentric behaviour because, after all, who are they to deny human-on-robot love? Who knew the Rocky franchise was so forward thinking? Niamh King
As seen in: Robocop
A police officer is brutally murdered and then re-created as a super human cyborg by the mega corporation he is, in turn, forced to take down. That’s the premise for Paul Verhoeven’s classic sci-fi flick and the sheer size of the following that this robot has gathered over the years is mind-boggling. Robocop has spawned two sequels, a TV series, two animated versions, countless merchandise and a flawed remake, not to mention the computer games and a comic book.
“Dead or alive, you’re coming with me!”, “Your move, creep”, Come quietly or there will be… trouble.” Now those are some classic catchphrases. Carol Killeen
As seen in: Austin Powers Series
The Fembots are fiendishly attractive android Barbie dolls whose primary function is to seduce and destroy one Austin Powers. They are blonde, attractive and ready to party, the perfect weapon to allure the sexed-up superspy.
The Fembots main weapon is their twin cannons they can summon from their chest region to either incapacitate or kill any unwitting men who wander into their path. When encountered by a group, our hero Powers is nearly overwhelmed, but he turns the tables and blows their processors and their minds with an erotic striptease. The fembots all look similar and have the same vacant, hostile look in their lifeless blue eyes. Later celebrity fembots include Elizabeth Hurley and Britney Spears who appeared in the sequels, but neither were as menacing or as oddly appealing as those in the original film. Jesse Melia
As seen in: Mortal Kombat
If nothing else, Cyrax warrants inclusion on this list for being christened with the most robot sounding name of all robots. While he lacks the charisma and character of Mortal Kombat stalwarts Scorpion, Sub Zero and Jax, he has one thing they will never have: the ability to shoot missiles out of his wrists. He can also shoot fire from the very same cannons. Improbable I know, but when partaking in an inter dimensional fighting tournament one must come prepared.
Cyrax’s back story is unremarkable. The bad guys sent him to kill the good guys, the good guys reprogrammed him; no one really cares. What we want to know is who is the real Cyrax? What makes him tick? This is something that personally I’d love to go into but sadly his low placing on this list prohibits me from truly covering the vast emotional framework of our flawed hero Cyrax. One can only hope that some day an intrepid journalist, much braver than I, will give Cyrax the 5000 word cover story he truly deserves. Jesse Melia
As seen in: AI: Artificial Intelligence
Of all the robots Steven Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence has to offer, Teddy is without a doubt the most impressive and intimidating. From the first introduction to Teddy it’s made crystal clear that, despite his cuddly and slightly evil appearance, he is not a toy. He takes in the role of Haley Joel Osment’s child robot David’s friend and guardian, often handing out useful advice such as “[Don’t eat spinach] You will break.” In complete contrast to the humans in David’s life, Teddy displays a steadfastness and determination to ensure his well being. (There’s a moral lesson there, somewhere, if you care to pursue it.) His dedication to the mission at hand – find the Blue Fairy who will transform David into a real boy – is truly remarkable considering he has no ties to the child other than he loves him with all his little robot heart. Niamh King
As seen in: Star Trek: The Next Generation
When Star Trek: The Next Generation first aired, fans of the original series were quick to notice similarities between the main cast and their 1960s counterparts. Foremost among these was Data, Starfleet’s first android officer who seemed little more than a poor man’s Mr Spock. But Data soon evolved into something more than an emotionless, naive foil to the show’s human characters. We watched him learn to become something more than a machine as the show-runners had him explore the human condition, the place of sentient life in the universe and even what defines a life form.
Data explored his desire for a family by creating a ‘child’, found his own long lost family (and evil twin) in Lore, and even crossed the machine-human sexual divide, declaring himself “fully functional” to Tasha Yar. An early defining moment came in the second season when Dr Polaski pronounced his name as ‘Dahtah’, rather than ‘Daytah’. When quizzed on why he corrected her, Data replied: “One is my name. The other is not.” David Bolger
As seen in: Futureama
More than just a robot, more than just a soapstar, Calculon is Futureama creator Matt Groening’s commentary on the vapid egotism of Hollywood and the television industry. The sheer overbearing selfishness that bullies its way into a kind of irresistible charisma holds a mirror up to stars like Russell Crowe, Bill Shatner of course, and even Adam West in his heyday. But it’s more than just sneering at the rich and famous on Groening’s part; Calculon is, after all, a robot, created to act the way we made him. Calculon himself is completely oblivious to all of this, he just basks in the attention and doles out meaningless thanks to the little people: “the Academy, my agent and, of course, my operating system”. Declan Aylward
37. The Buffy Bot
As seen in: Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Appearing in season five and six of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Buffybot is an identical robot replica of the real Buffy Summers. Programmed to be in love with the vampire Spike, she will do anything to please him.
A symptom of Spike’s obsession with the real Buffy, the Buffybot is an experiment that went wrong. The robot’s creators did not perfect her speech and mannerisms, so although she is chipper and permanently happy around Spike, she lacks tact and can be incredibly blunt in conversation. Happily, the Buffybot has her uses – other than as a talkative sex toy for Spike – and she is often used to distract the enemy or convince them that Buffy is in two places at once. Brogen Hayes
36. Atomic Robo
As seen in: Atomic Robo
Atomic Robo is an old school robot in every sense of the word. From his bucket head design to World War Two antics, Brian Clevinger’s comic series is an action-packed adventure right out of the pages of Commando…if Commando had an almost painfully postmodern awareness of itself.
Atomic Robo was built by Nikola Tesla, that bastion of unlikely inventions, and works with the Action Scientists of Tesladyne Industries to keep the world safe from weird war machines and supernatural threats, including walking Nazi tanks called Laufpanzers and one particularly annoying dinosaur with a PhD. There are elements of The Venture Brothers in Robo’s banter with the bad guys and the same trendy, tongue-in-cheek teasing of the stories our parents grew up with that probably makes the creator of The Hardy Boys want to rise from his grave and pelt the nearest Starbucks with buttered scones. Declan Aylward
As seen in: Caprica
Raised on the planet Caprica, Zoe Graystone was born into a wealthy family who believed her to be a normal teenager, but in reality she was a secret monotheist (the standard belief system in Caprica is polytheism) and computer genius. When Zoe is killed in a suicide bombing carried out by religious extremists, her father downloads a digital recreation of into a robot and thus, Zoe-R – a robot with Zoe Graystone’s consciousness intact within it – is born.
Zoe-R believes that she is simply trying to escape to religious freedom on Gemenon – a planet that shares her religious beliefs – but as fans of Battlestar Galactica will know, Zoe-R was the first cylon consciousness and the precursor to the race of robots that started a 12 year war to be free of their human masters. And you thought your teenage years were hard! Brogen Hayes
As seen in: Dr Who
Of all the many weird and wonderful Dr Who villains there are two that stand out: the Daleks and the Cybermen. But let’s face it, the Daleks, as scary as they are at times, look a bit like an army of rubbish bins. The Cybermen, on the other hand, are as hard as they come. These machines used to be human but with so many parts of their anatomy replaced over the years with mechanical enhancement, they are now almost entirely machine, becoming, in the process, so cold and calculating that they have lost all respect for life, apart from their own. With so many Cyberman gracing Dr Who, I can’t pick a favourite, they are all pretty badass. It still sends a shiver down my spine when I look at the ‘delete’ button on my keyboard. Rachael Murphy
33. Sgt Bash
As seen in: Robot Wars
One the ‘Housebots’ in the UK version of Robot Wars, Sgt Bash sported a mean-looking camouflage paint job that made him an intimidating prospect on the robot battlefield. But despite looking the part, Bash was sadly inept when it came to a scrap. His main weapon was a flame thrower, which looked mightily impressive, but it wasn’t much unless his opponent was made out of polyester. As a secondary method of attack, the sergeant could deploy a circular saw. Designed to cut his victims deep, it was so slow at carving through steel that only robots who had stopped moving were in any real danger of it breaching their protective shell.
He may have been all mouth and no trousers, but what made Bash 10 times more likeable than his super-dangerous allies like Sir Killalot was his bad temper and feelings of self-righteousness. He’d often wander out of his designated zone, looking to pick on contestants and their stupid looking robots, probably because they offended him with their tacky designs. Dean Van Nguyen
32. R Daneel Olivaw
As seen in: The work of Isaac Asimov
R Daneel Olivaw first appeared in writer Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, and eventually became his most commonly featured character. Built in the year 5020, he was the first ‘humaniform’ robot and could only be distinguished from a human being when forced to follow Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, and even then could be mistaken as simply an overtly moral person.
Based on his own philosophy, he sidestepped the First Law (which stated “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm”) by creating the pre-emptive Zeroth Law; “A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.” He went on to become a Machiavellian minimalist, deciding which course would be safest for the human race, and calculating the least intrusive action he could take to set them on that path. Asimov later wrote that he put Olivaw into so many of his stories because his publishers and fans kept insisting on it. David Bolger
31. Citroën C4
As seen in: Citroën Ad
Yes, it’s the Citroën advert that no doubt caught your eye. The one when the car stands up and magnificently transforms into a giant dancing robot, performing a routine loosely based on the idea of a Transformers break dance developed by the agents from Justin Timberlake’s choreographer Marty Kudelka. And before you ask, this was before Michael Bay entered the picture.
Apparently the car itself was well received, and is actually alive, em, with technology. The dance was accompanied by the extremely catchy tune ‘Jacques Your Body (Make Me Sweat)’ by Les Rythmes Digitales. Be sure to get at that one on Spotify. Carol Killeen
As seen in: Star Wars
One of the most underrated supporting characters of the Star Wars series, C-3PO and his counterpart R2-D2 are credited as being the world’s first ‘bromance’, bridging language barriers, robot race and much more besides. One of the few characters to be portrayed by the same actor throughout the entire Star Wars series; C-3PO has become a cult figure amongst fans the world over. The robot has inspired some the most varied and downright bizarre collectibles such as earrings, art and, my personal favourite, altered antique plates! More recently we’ve seen a C-3PO iPad Case, the iPad accessory for geeks across the globe. Niamh King
As seen in: Knight Rider
An abbreviation of ‘Knight Industries Two Thousand’, KITT was the talking car from eighties megahit TV show Knight Rider. The Knight in question was Michael Knight, played by The Hoff himself. Together with KITT, the duo was a formidable crime stopping force, defeating their enemies with a mixture of devastating explosives, unbelievable technology and artificial intelligence.
Undeniably camp, KITT would often come out with some awful lines that suggested that maybe there was more than just a platonic love between one man and his artificial intelligent car going on, including this gem: “It appears to be a large… My goodness, large isn’t the word, it’s enormous!” Seán Earley
As seen in: Saved by the Bell
Not all successful TV series hit the ground running and the first couples of seasons can sometimes be littered with failed experiments, and characters soon to get the chop. In Saved by the Bell’s case, there was Max, the annoying waiter from the restaurant of the same name who insisted on using magic tricks as a visual aid to underline the advice he was giving the fresh-faced Zach, AC and the gang. He was wisely axed soon after. Then there was Kevin, Screech’s robot friend who was inexplicably removed from the show after two seasons. His appearances included a gig as an assistant to Screech’s magician and as a hall monitor, filling in for his much-loved master. But more than just a mechanical slave, Kevin offered the anxious teen much needed guidance with a refreshing sense of humour. Removing his robotic buddy when they did, no wonder the actor who played Screech went off the rails. Dean Van Nguyen
27. ‘Robot Rock’
Recorded by: Daft Punk
Daft Punk’s sound has always had a rather cybernetic quality. From the repetitive thud of the bass in ‘Da Funk’ to the space-aged synth laser blasts of ‘Around The World’, they have always seemed like a band that belonged at some futuristic rave out in the far reaches of the cosmos. By their second album they had evolved into robots, physically and sonically, with an arsenal of new, auto tune laden pop songs. The definitive example of their inorganic, processed sound is the aptly titled ‘Robot Rock’, a song which is played by robots and, indeed, rocks. In fact, the music video features a robot playing guitar. It does exactly what it says on the space aged tin. Jesse Melia
As seen in: Robocop
ED-209 had one of the most memorable introductions in sci-fi cinema when during a straight forward demonstration, he hideously malfunctions and guns down an innocent man. It kinda set the bar for things to come. The tank-like robot became something of a comic foil in the Robocop film trilogy, TV series, comic book and other spin offs because of his tendency to break and general flaws in his design. (His inability to negotiate a flight of stairs leads to his defeat in the first encounter with Robocop).
We think 209 got a bad hand. His flaws in the movie were mostly down to the rush to get him operational and these defects were apparently not worked out, with the sequel’s filmmakers determined to keep him slow, stupid and easily defeatable. A shame, since Robocop director Paul Verhoeven intended him to terrify, comparing the design to that of a Vietnam war helicopter. Dean Van Nguyen
A version of this article originally appeared in One More Robot.