Roblog: Robots Ready for Their Close-Ups

By Ashley Hansberry • April 25, 2012 at 12:00 pm


Roblog is a weekly column dedicated to understanding the world of robotics. If science fiction is right and the impending robot apocalypse is real, it can’t hurt to be prepared. Come back every Wednesday for a new blog of robot rants.

Robots have been in movies and television shows for much longer than we’ve had the technology to make them.  As early as 1927, when Fritz Lang’s film, Metropolis, portrayed one of the first robots on film, robots began to infiltrate popular culture. You probably won’t see anything like Cheetah robots or Quadrotors in theaters, though. Despite quick technological advances, the robots portrayed in pop-culture are perpetually more advanced than current technology, specifically when it comes to their intelligence. But why shouldn’t they be? Artful portrayals of robots cause us to think critically about the realities of their potential existence and continue to push the boundaries of their capabilities.

HAL 9000's red "eye" is both iconic and haunting. | Photo courtesy racatumba via Flickr Creative Commons.

Thanks to Metropolis, the first popular fictional robots were often evil ones. In the dystopian world portrayed in Lang’s silent film, a robot called Maria impersonates a human woman and destroys many lives by causing an uprising in the society. Maria set the standard quite high for movie robot villains. The Terminator, released in 1984, has also been key in shaping perception of robots. Set in 2029, society in the film is ruled by intelligent machines looking to overtake the human race. The cyborg “Terminator” assassin is sent back in time to protect these artificial intelligences that are supposed to rule the future. If The Terminator still isn’t quite sinister enough, consider HAL 9000. There is no doubt about it; the artificial intelligence computer than runs the spacecraft featured in 2001: A Space Odyssey is haunting. HAL 9000 becomes so intelligent and so determined to fulfill the mission that he betrays the humans he was created to help. When the film was released in 1968, some computer scientists were confident that robots as intelligent as HAL would exist within the next few decades. Though the nonexistence of such intelligent robots is a disappointment for scientists, society probably isn’t ready for HAL anyway.

Even without speech, WALL-E is one of the most lovable robot characters. | Photo courtesy HarshLight via Flickr Creative Commons.

Though many people blame their fear of robots on movies like those above, many of the most well-known robots are just the opposite. Some of the most recent examples are WALL-E and EVE from the 2008 Pixar film, WALL-E. Although WALL-E is based in a dystopian future like some of the previously mentioned robot movies, it’s robot characters are actually the heroes. The Star Wars films feature another heroic robot duo, R2-D2 and C-3PO who save the day countless times. Likable robots have made their way into television as well, like Rosey in The Jetsons or Bender from Futuramaboth of whom are often used for comedic relief. Other favorite robots destined for good include Johnny 5 from Short Circuit and the Iron Giant from The Iron Giant.

Pop-culture robots, whether evil or good, do tend to share one peculiar thing in common. They are all incredibly intelligent. Even the best robots today can’t compare with the human-like intelligence that robots have shown in the movies for nearly a century. Not only are these robots smart, they exhibit emotions and have personalities far beyond the capability for speech. In film and television, when people think robots they tend to mean artificial intelligence.

Unlike in the movies, to be a robot a physical machine doesn’t need artificial intelligence. Where movie robots are characters to interact with, most of the robots in use today are tools in factories that speed up production. What popular culture wants from robotics is to change what it means to be a robot. If what people want is intelligence (and that is what we seem to want), science is going to keep working towards achieving it. We just have to be careful what we wish for. If robotic intelligence does become a reality, scientists could make robots like WALL-E or R2-D2 that could offer companionship while solving difficult tasks. Without careful consideration of what human-robot interaction should be, however, we might accidentally end up with another HAL 9000 instead.


Ashley Hansberry (CAS '14) is the Senior Editor at The Quad. She is a senior studying Computer Science and Linguistics who likes writing about robots, technology, and education. When she's not living in the computer science lab, you can find her wearing animal earrings or admiring puppies she sees on the street.