Porfírio Silva

Fabulous races of humanoid monsters and robots

Fabulous races, like the Pygmies (a diminutive African tribe), the Panotti (giant-eared men), the Sciapods (one-legged men), the Arimaspians (one-eyed men), the Chest-Eyes (men without heads, whose faces were set upon their chests), the Cynocephali (dog-headed men), and the Gegenees (a tribe of six-armed giants), populated the medieval imaginary of Western Civilization. Tribes of humanoid monsters were taken as existing in the remotest parts of the earth, according to stereotyped descriptions originated from ancient authors like Pliny the Elder (Natural History), Eusebius (Treatise Against Hierocles), Aeschylus (Prometheus Bound), Herodotus (Histories), Pausanias (Description of Greece), Hesiod (Catalogues of Women), Apollonius Rhodius (The Argonautica), or Philostratus (Life of Apollonius of Tyana). Several ancient and medieval thinkers argued the status of those races, in terms of them being human or nonhuman. But only the great navigations and discoveries of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries throw light on the subject, not in philosophical or theological terms, but in factual terms: those races do not exist.

The Portuguese philosopher José Gil wrote (Monstros, 1994): « Probably, man produces monsters by a single reason: to think about their own humanity. It would be possible to trace the history of different ideas or definitions that the man made of himself through various representations of human monstrosity. » And: « In this end of century, monsters proliferate (...). Very soon, they will no longer seem monstrous for us and will even worth our sympathy (...). We'll talk then of the "banal monstrosity."»

Now, we are building new fabulous races of a humanoid genre: humanoid robots. A Humanoid Robot is a robot with its overall appearance based on that of the human body. In general humanoid robots have a torso with a head, two arms and two legs, although some forms of humanoid robots may model only part of the body, for example, from the waist up. Some humanoid robots may also have a 'face', with 'eyes' and 'mouth'.

What does this all mean? Why do we produce humanoid robots? Will humanoid robots become banal among us? What is our concept of humanity that allows us to engage in manufacturing robots which we call “humanoid”?

As a try to a tentative answer to these questions, we will compare specimens of fabulous races from medieval times with specimens of humanoid robots – and ask what questions we need to ask about this new possible world.