Famous Fictional Robots We Want in Real Life
The Robot on Your Nightstand
Society's current fascination with robots is not new. We've been utilizing robots in our lives for a very long time.
Take that alarm clock sitting on your nightstand. It's a machine to which you've delegated the task of rousing you to get out of bed and get going. Not very sophisticated and there have been non-electric versions of them for many, many years. We've also delegated tasks such as dishwashing and clothes washing to mechanical creatures.
But today, we're expecting a lot more from our robots. We expect them to anticipate our needs, evaluate situations and solutions, communicate similarly to ourselves, and provide answers on demand, much like the advanced robots we've seen in movies or on television. In many ways, they've already arrived in some form. But there are still many of their functions we still want to see in real life.
Robot Versus Android Versus Artificial Intelligence: What Are The Differences?
In conversation, we often use the terms robot, android, and artificial intelligence interchangeably. However, they do refer to different types of technologies.
Robot refers to a mechanical device that can be set or programmed to perform tasks without much, if any, human intervention. We delegate tasks to these mechanical creatures since they can do the job cheaper, better, faster, or more safely than humans or other animate beings can.
The alarm clock we talked about earlier is a primitive and simple example. We set the time for it to sound off, and the internal gears or electronics make sure that happens. Another example is a car to which we have assigned the duties that horses used to perform. The car robots can go faster, are not susceptible to disease, and can be a more humane transportation option. In industrial settings, robots can be extremely complex, and be programmed to manufacture individual parts, all the way up to almost completely assembled vehicles.
Androids are also robots with one distinguishing feature: They have a human-like form.
Artificial intelligence, sometimes abbreviated as AI, may not be a robot, although it could be part of a robot's system. AI refers to machine learning. Based on data inputs, the machine or computer is programmed to recognize patterns. It then "decides" on future actions based on patterns. For a very simple example, my personal financial software has seen that I make certain types of purchases from various retailers and that I categorize them in a particular way. It will categorize future transactions based on my behavior pattern.
So let's take a look at some of the most famous fictional robots, androids, and AI we want in real life.
Star Wars' R2-D2
Who wouldn't want a mechanic and bodyguard always at your side? Of course, we'd want that. Lucky for Padmé Amidala, Anakin, and Luke Skywalker, they did in the form of one of the most recognizable robots in the Star Wars franchise, R2-D2. R2-D2 was an "astromech droid" who could fix a starship and protect the Skywalker clan. While his tech-mech prowess and security detail were commendable, he only spoke in beeps, whistles, and other noises that might make him a little less interactive than some of his more human-like robot cohorts, such as C-3PO.
Star Wars' C-3PO
Of course, if we want R2-D2 in our real world, we'll have to probably ask his Star Wars sidekick, C-3PO to join us, too. But that's not a bad idea anyway. C-3PO can reportedly speak 6 million languages. Let that sink in. Six... million... languages. Heck, we have enough trouble with just one! Those mad translation skills will come in handy when we eventually do start communicating with the world outside our solar system.
Terminator 2 (NOT Terminator 1 or T-1000!)
Sometimes robots need to be rebooted for a different mission. And good thing that happened between the first and second Terminator films. The first Terminator was a relentless android killing machine. The older, evolved, model of Terminator 2: Judgment Day was now under the command of the young savior of future humanity, John Connor, switching from offense to defense (and confirms that he hasn't killed any people). With this AI capabilities, the rebooted Terminator develops a family-like bond with John. Unstoppable, committed security detail? We might want that. But I don't think the insurance folks will go for the massive collateral damage.
Star Trek's "Computer"
Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS) introduced us to "Computer," a computerized information resource and analyst that would answer to the vocal commands of the crew. It had a mechanical voice accompanied by the sounds of machines which, allegedly, were needed to make calculations, do research, or complete other tasks.
In Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG), the voice had become humanized, now being voiced by Gene Roddenberry's wife (and star in many episodes in both TOS and TNG), Majel Barrett, sometimes accompanied by some mechanized tones.
Whether you prefer the TOS mechanical voice or more comforting voice of the TNG "Computer," most of us would admit to wanting a powerful and interactive virtual assistant at our vocal command. And it's here now.
The Amazon Alexa voice command personal assistant—integrated into the Amazon Echo, Echo Dot, and Wand devices—answers questions, helps make purchases, provides information (weather, time, etc.), plays music, controls home devices and functions... and the list continues to grow. The list of available voice controlled devices and programs from other providers continues to grow, too, with Apple's Siri, Google Home, and Microsoft's Cortana.
Because of our fascination with the Computer throughout the entire Star Trek franchise, Alexa Echo can now be programmed to respond to the trigger word, "Computer." If that ain't fiction in real life!
Marvel's Iron Man/Avengers "Jarvis"
In the Iron Man/Avengers franchises, "Jarvis" is an artificial intelligence computer that is at the side of Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, in both Tony's crazy cool tech innovation lab and in the Iron Man suit. It's like Star Trek's Computer with even more advanced AI skills. Plus, he's Tony's friend, protector, and collaborator.
The Jetsons' Rosie
I hate housework! Always have, always will. Sure, I still clean my house regularly. But for me, any robot (or android) designed to clean my house is on my "I want it" list.
Enter Rosie from the 1960s cartoon classic, The Jetsons. To me she was mechanized embodiment of the maid from the sitcom classic, Hazel. Same type of East Coast accent, almost a member of the family, and calls the boss, "Mr." with their last name initial ("Mr. B" for Hazel, and "Mr. J" for Rosie). Rosie was an android robot, but with hook like hands and rolling caster feet. Having her around freed up the lady of the house, Jane Jetson, for, well, I don't what. Shopping at "Mooning Dales?"
The Self Cleaning House in Ray Bradbury's "There Will Come Soft Rains"
But having a Rosie at the ready for household chores might be rivaled by a house that's a robot itself.
In Ray Bradbury's short story, "There Will Come Soft Rains," the house itself is a robot of sorts. An Amazon Alexa-like "voice-clock" announces the day; reminders about bills to be paid, birthdays and anniversaries; and, the weather. The kitchen makes the breakfast... and, apparently, martinis. "Tiny robot mice" and "scrap rats" keep the house clear of dust and debris.
Almost every activity is facilitated by robots in this house. Unfortunately, the human inhabitants have been obliterated by a nuclear apocalypse and only the house remains, dutifully doing the chores.
The house is set in August, 2026. Let's see, that's not far from the date I'm writing this. Can I pre-order my robot cleaning mice now?
While that was fiction, a housecleaning visionary (or eccentric?), Frances Gabe, actually invented a self cleaning house (New York Times). No robot mice, but as you'll see in this video, a plethora of workarounds... some of which work.
The real problem with self cleaning houses is that homes have so many different types of surfaces and obstacles everywhere. The following review of the iRobot "Roomba" robot vacuum is a good example of why we're still far away from total robot housecleaning success.
What a dutiful, adorable robot! He doesn't feel bad about having a job that handles trash. It's just what he's designed to do.
Disney/Pixar's "WALL-E" robot character is different. He's sentient and lonely. And when another robot race lands on the surface, WALL-E's adventure turns into a romantic, "Little Engine That Could" type story, and he saves the day.
While we still have amazing men and women who handle the world's trash to make it a cleaner place, I'm sure many would like to offload that duty to a robot! We've already talked about the Roomba to do our dirty work in our homes. But I don't think it's far off when we employ robots and drones to handle our trash. They already are in service to our military in scoping out danger.
It's 5 o'clock somewhere in the universe. And space travelers could enjoy perfectly concocted cocktails from a robot like "Arthur," an android bartender featured in the movie, Passengers. In Passengers, the starship's passengers are in sleep mode as they travel to colonize a new planet. Upon being awakened prematurely (I won't say why so I don't spoil the story), two of the passengers begin frequenting the onboard bar, tended by Arthur who dispenses libations and relationship advice... as best he can for being an android.
An always friendly bartender who can mix up a perfect cocktail 24/7/365? I'm sure a lot of folks would want that in real life!
Star Trek: Voyager's Emergency Medical Hologram
On the later Star Trek: Voyager series, there is no human doctor. Rather, medical assistance is provided by a usually humorless "EMH" (Emergency Medical Hologram) program. The EMH program is powered by a separate energy source so that it's always available to care for the ship's crew.
Aside from the unsympathetic bedside manner, what if we could have EMH medical help, on demand where needed? The prospects are appealing.
We are likely many, many, many (yes, I meant to use that three times) years away from such a technology. But if it becomes possible, think of the possibilities for providing medical care to remote places and people.
Star Trek: The Next Generation's Data
The ultimate artificially intelligent android robot! "Data" is so human-like that he has been given a job, just as other crew members, on Star Trek: The Next Generation. But his physical strength and agility, analytical ability, information processing, and body which requires no sleep makes him a uniquely indispensable crew member.
Due to his AI functions, Data is evolving into what could be argued to be a new life form. Throughout the Star Trek: The Next Generation series, his sentience and living being status were called into question on numerous occasions, providing a platform for the philosophical discussion on what is life. The following video is a perfect example of this continuing debate that we will all engage in as more use of robots looms on the horizon.
What If the Robots Rise Against Us or Take Our Jobs? The Reality Check.
There is a genuine concern among even the most tech-forward elite—including billionaire technopreneur Elon Musk (npr.org)—that if AI innovation is left unchecked and unregulated, it will destroy civilization through those using it for destructive ends. Another specter of a robot and AI apocalypse is that depicted in the movie, The Matrix. In that scenario, the robots take over, enslaving the human race.
Personally, I think we're not even close to either of those futures as of this writing. However, I do agree with Musk in that it does need to be monitored and regulated to keep it from destroying us and our world.
Of more concern for many is the impact on the economy and jobs market. However, even that may not be what people now envision, as discussed in the article, Chill: Robots Won't Take All Our Jobs (Wired). The article discusses how while technology will destroy many jobs, other jobs will be created.
These are both philosophical and practical things to think about. In fact, these concerns have been on our consciousness for quite some time. In the next featured video, 1960s comedic king of parody, Allan Sherman, tells the story of one robot/computer overstepping its boundaries, set to the song, "Fascination."
What's also interesting in this bit, that's now over 50 years old, is the reference to IBM. IBM has since developed the Watson AI technology, capable of answering questions asked in natural language. Again, the Star Trek "Computer" comes to real life!
Also mentioned in the parody is UNIVAC, the world's first digital computer in 1951 that was installed at the U.S. Census Bureau (History.com). It was a whopping 16,000 pounds and could only process 1,000 instructions per second. Today's smartphones are literally millions of times faster and fit in your pocket.
Though computing, robots, and AI are advancing at a rapid pace, for the time being, we still have the solution proposed in the following humorous look at robot technology and automation. Enjoy!
© 2017 Heidi Thorne