How realistic are famous movie robots?
Robot and Frank’, out on DVD 15 July, gives us perhaps the most realistic movie robot so far. Not only does it look like robots that actually exist right now, it also has a plausible job – looking after an elderly chap (played by Frank Langella).
Many movie robots have been a bit more fanciful however, according to renowned furturologist Ian Pearson. Pearson helped develop text messaging for BT back in the 90s, and predicted the likes of search engines and digital TV. So, we enlisted his sage-like powers to find out if some of the robot scenarios predicted by Hollywood – such as Terminators wiping us all out - could ever happen in reality. (For our sake, let's hope that one's a "no"...)
(Credit: Stage 6 films)
Robot from ‘Robot & Frank’
Operating history: Ageing ex-convict, Frank, is bought a robot pal by his family, which helps him with therapeutic care and his daily routine. However when Frank finds out the robot is not programmed to distinguish between legal and illegal activities, he uses his new companion to help him commit one last heist. But with Frank needing to cover his tracks, he’s faced with wiping the memory of his now respected robotic friend, as it could be used as evidence against him.
Could it happen? “Robot’s design is actually similar to Honda’s ASIMO robots from Japan, already grounding it in reality," says Ian. "We already have basic robots doing essential caring jobs, and they’re capable of simple conversation. Even some basic A.I. systems are capable of almost fooling us into believing they’re people (think online Chatbots). Although it might seem expensive to use a robot where a human might do, in reality it’s not about economics, it’s about a shortage of people. In Japan for example, where these kinds of robots are being developed, they have a lot of older people coming along, and not enough younger people to care for them. I would say the realistic timeframe for this to start becoming widespread is between 2020 and 2025. It’s not very far away.”
Robo-realism rating: 5/5
Johnny 5 from ‘Short Circuit’
Operating history: Originally proposed by the military for handling nuclear weapons, prototype Number 5 is struck by lightning - developing consciousness and a fear of death (reprogramming) – causing him to flee his creators.
Could it happen? “We already have bomb disposal robots,” says Ian. “Why would you take one of those a stick a head on it? Plus, if you’ve got the level of technology to create complex A.I. with conversational abilities, you wouldn’t see the rest of the robot based on caterpillar tracks. It’s just not feasible.”
Robo-realism rating: 2/5
The Nexus-6 Replicants from ‘Blade Runner’
Operating history: Genetically engineered organic robots, known as Replicants, are almost indistinguishable from humans by the year 2019. They are used for dangerous or leisure work in the Off-World Colonies, but banned back on Earth. Then, when a group of particularly ruthless Replicants escape into LA, a retired detective (or Blade Runner) is brought in to hunt them down.
Could it happen? “There’s currently a lot of work going into trying to create robots that look like humans, however there’s the issue of ‘The Uncanny Valley’," says Ian. "When you’ve got a robot that looks quite lifelike, but not exactly right, then it becomes a bit ghoulish and very obviously not human. People tend to react with distaste and even disgust (think dodgy wax-works). However the ones in ‘Blade Runner’ have overcome that problem and are now so human it’s become worrying. The problem with ‘Blade Runner’ though is they dated it too early (2019), in reality we could have this kind of robot routinely running around by about 2070. What the movie did get right was the excessive strength, it’s entirely realistic. Weight for weight the technology would allow them to be about five times stronger, making them prime for use in areas such as the military and emergency services.”
Robo-realism rating: 3/5
NS-5, a.k.a Sonny from ‘I, Robot’
Operating history: In 2035, robots co-exist with mankind as personal assistants and public service workers, installed with ‘Three Laws’ to prevent them from harming humans. However when the founder of manufacturers US Robotics is killed in an apparent suicide, prototype bot Sonny, who is able to override the ‘Three Laws’, comes under investigation.
Could it happen? “These robots are very feasible indeed," says Ian. "You’ve got basic humanoid robots, and they’re not trying too hard to make them look exactly like humans, although they’ve do have internal projected faces so they avoid the ‘Uncanny Valley’ problem. However you can image these robots being quite commonplace in the not very distant future, then towards the later part of the century they would be replaced by ‘Blade Runner’ style robots, once the technology caught up.”
Robo-realism rating: 4/5
David from ‘A.I. Artificial Intelligence’
Operating history: In the late 21st century, advanced humanoid androids known as Mecha are capable of mimicking thoughts, emotions and actions - making them suitable for use as toys, companions and even lovers. Prototype child mecha (David) is produced, with the ability to show genuine and unconditional love, but the experiment quickly backfires.
Could it happen? “David is cute as a character, especially the ‘Pinocchio’ complex he acquires, but the way the movie tackles emotions belittles the way we would actually deal with A.I.,” says Ian. “However Teddy, that wonders round as a companion for kids, is perfectly realistic. It’s not too dissimilar to Furbies as a toy concept. Also, the sex-bot, Jude Law’s adult gigolo robot, is perfectly feasible too - and a likely eventuality in our future. Of course robots will develop emotions, as in reality an emotion is just an imbalance in the way we make a decision. It’s just a modifier in an equation, a virus if you like. There are many different ways robots could be programmed to mimic these - in fact there’s nothing in principle that would prevent a robot existing with the capabilities to show millions of different types of emotion. Far more than humans themselves. Interestingly, just as we’ve just been through the battles over same sex marriage, how long will it be before someone wants to marry a robot? That will happen. It’s just a question of when.”
Robo-realism rating: 4/5