Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop contains lots of over-the-top violence, from pre-cyborg police officer Murphy getting his hand shot off to a volunteer getting ripped apart by bullets during a robot demonstration. But the scene that has made a lasting impression on viewers, a scene that has likely prompted thousands of heated arguments in those pre-internet days, isn’t one of mayhem or destruction.
In it, a scientist is giving a tour of the cyborg police officer’s maintenance chamber to the executives in charge of the program. The scientist gives them a small paper cup containing a brown paste and explains that it is what RoboCop eats. One of the executives dips a finger in and declares that it “tastes like baby food!”
While this scene may not have triggered a sudden spike in baby food sales, it has produced an intriguing hypothetical: Do cyborgs really need to eat? Granted, there’s no practical way to answer this question at the moment, but with robotics technology improving rapidly each year, the question of fuel sources is a fascinating one. Is organic fuel for cyborgs a necessity? Couldn’t they just power up throughout the day by plugging in a USB or a charger?
We can start our pseudoscientific speculation with the assumption that cyborgs’ nutritional needs for their organic parts are more or less like ordinary individuals. The mechanical parts, of course, would need another energy source, like electricity or biofuels.
In RoboCop’s case, his original digestive system wasn’t salvaged, and it was replaced with a “digestion organ pot,” which doesn’t seem to be a rational decision. Eating seems like such a messy and inefficient way of getting energy, not to mention the kind of waste it produces. So why don’t science fiction writers eliminate the need for elimination?
The Borg—of the Star Trek universe—for example, survive on electrical energy that they convert into sustenance for their organic parts, unless they’re detached from the Borg Collective like Seven Of Nine. Couldn’t that be the solution for cyborgs like RoboCop? Not to join the Borg (although think of the possibilities), but at least find a way to convert the same energy that powers their mechanical parts into ones that can sustain their organic ones.
We reached out to a few leading scientists who were game enough to lend their knowledge and experience to speculate on this topic. Dr. Ayanna Howard, of the School Of Electrical And Computer Engineering at the Georgia Institute Of Technology, believes a key distinction between cyborgs and robots lies in their energy processes. “Cyborgs, first and foremost, correlate with the energy processes of a living (human) organism,” she said. “Robots, on the other hand, correlate with the energy processes of an electro-mechanical structure.”
It’s possible for the chemical energy used by living things and the electrical energy used by mechanical things can be inter-converted, said Dr. Russ Altman, chair of the department of bioengineering and director of the program in Biomedical Informatics at the Stanford University School Of Medicine. “But there is always a loss whenever you convert energy between forms,” he says, and that the main challenges would be to find a source of energy that is both cheap and easy to get and figure out how to convert them into forms suitable for powering a cyborg’s organic and mechanical parts.
Inter-conversion works for the Borg because they don’t appear to have assimilated cost-conscious habits, but it’s doubtful that OCP, the corporation that created RoboCop, would tolerate anything so inefficient and wasteful.
The digestion organ pot might also serve another practical purpose beyond allowing RoboCop to use food as a cheap source of energy like a common human. Dr. Altman points out, “In humans, food gets converted to energy directly by the human, but also by the bacteria in the gut. Those bacteria probably do other useful things like help the immune system and maybe prevent disease, so if you removed digestion from humans, you would have to make sure that you do something to not suffer from immune [or] disease problems.”
Since RoboCop didn’t succumb to any germs while he was out killing criminals, we can most likely assume that his digestion organ pot is performing bacteria duty, as well.
As to speculate why RoboCop eats baby food, the obvious answer is it’s the only type of food that the digestion organ pot can process, since it doesn’t appear like it could handle dissolving a steak or even a good-sized chicken leg. But we should also consider the gruel-eating precedent set by another helmeted cyborg with lawful principles whose grievous injuries would have resulted in his death if he hadn’t been revived with cybernetic implants: Darth Vader. The Sith Lord is also consigned to ingesting a crappy-tasting nutrient paste through his suit for sustenance because his body is too damaged to process food normally.
Looking at RoboCop and Darth Vader, it’s tempting to make conjectures about how food is depicted in science fiction. In dystopian realities, food is eaten mostly by the poor masses in unappetizing forms like cardboard-like wafers (Soylent Green), slimy goop (The Matrix), or gelatinous bricks (Snowpiercer). Everything enjoyable about eating is stripped away, leaving only the drudgery of fuel replenishment. In these stories, showing humans (or part-humans) being denied the basic pleasure of eating is a shortcut for the diminishment of their humanity.
But symbolism aside, it’s just as likely that the reason cyborgs like RoboCop are forced to eat nutrient paste is mundane and practical, as Dr. Howard suggests. For science fiction cyborgs whose memories have been rewritten as part of their function, their nutritional desires “are no longer driven by past experiences, acquired taste, [and] social norms,” Howard says. The type of food that cyborgs eat would depend more on “cost, availability, [and] speed of consumption… rather than based on how our food preferences, neophobias, or tastes have evolved.”
If OCP can mind-wipe RoboCop’s memories of his family, they can definitely mind-wipe his food preferences, and it’s not hard to imagine that both the Empire and OCP would choose convenience and low cost over flavor and mouth feel.
No discussion on cyborg eating habits is complete without broaching the topic of poop. Yes, RoboCop does poop, but not through his butt (which doesn’t exist anymore in its organic form). We can only speculate that while he’s docked, it’s likely his waste is emptied from the digestion organ pot or, like Darth Vader’s, recycled into something else.
In science fiction, cyborgs represent technology’s potential to overcome the physical limitations of organic bodies—including death itself. And yet many writers seem to hesitate when it comes to circumventing the necessity of eating. Perhaps the reason for this can be found in an Isaac Asimov story that inverts the idea of man becoming machine. In Asimov’s novella “The Bicentennial Man,” robot Andrew slowly turns himself into a human being over the course of 200 years, a process that includes incorporating digestive and excretory systems (and an anus!) to let him eat and poop like an organic being.
This puzzles the humans around him, who don’t understand why he would want to diminish his superior robotic mechanisms. One human asks: “But why, Andrew? The atomic cell is surely infinitely better.” Andrew responds, “In some ways, perhaps. But the atomic cell is inhuman.”