TECHNICALLY SPEAKING
WHERE TO LOOK

Every geek on Earth, present company included, goes through a robotics phase. And we all like to write about it, so there’s no shortage of great robot info on the Internet.

Some of the boldest and brightest of the aforementioned geeks, present company excluded, move on to work at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. This Web site is a great place to get your head out of the clouds and into the current and concrete world of robotics, particularly from a space exploration perspective.

If you’d prefer your reality with a twist of theory and speculation, check out the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc’s Robotic and Automation Society. You need to be a member to really dig deeply, but non-members can still skim the surface and potentially come up with some interesting contacts.

If you’re comfortable researching without the soothing veneer of HTML, the Study Sphere list of Listservs and Newsgroups yields some interesting stuff, particularly the Artificial Intelligence FAQ.

However, if you’re looking for something a little glossier, spend some time at The Tech Museum of Innovation’s Robotics Exhibit, where you’ll find discussions on the facts, fictions and art of robotics, featuring audio and video interviews with scientists, engineers and artists.

These Are the Droids You’re Looking For 
Written by Denis Faye

Richard Volpe doesn’t claim to know much about movies. But robotics? Well, he’s the Manager of the Mobility and Robotic Systems Section of the Autonomous Systems Division at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (translation: guy in charge of lots of NASA’s robots). He worked on the Mars Exploration Rover and the Phoenix Mars Lander and is currently working on the Mars Science Laboratory. Furthermore, the research area for his Carnegie Mellon University Applied Physics Ph.D. was “Robotic arm force control and obstacle avoidance.” So, it’s safe to say he knows a thing or two about robots.

This massive well of knowledge, combined with his cinematic naivety, make for an interesting perspective on the role of androids in film. “I think that one of the reasons one would choose science fiction as a genre is to be able to provide unique perspectives on the human condition that you couldn’t otherwise write into a story,” Volpe ponders, “and so in order to drive at that point, robots are attractive because they often can be made human-like, but then have things missing.”

Okay, if he muses that machines in film can be allegories for the human condition, maybe he’s less cinematically naïve than he insists. All the same, it’s still an interesting perspective.

Volpe took a moment to talk with Technically Speaking about the role robots play onscreen, including a list of interesting films about our mechanical friends. Who’d have thought Logan’s Run would make that list?

What does Hollywood get right when it comes to robotics?

I think they have so many different versions that there’s always something that’s right and something that’s wrong, kind of like with science in general. Usually, the things that are wrong are not necessarily absolutely wrong. It’s just that they’re projecting into a future that’s uncertain and so it gets to be a little bit artistic, trying to predict the future and making it entertaining. Sometimes it’s a little bit ahead of where we are, so the public believes the technology is further along than it really is.

Do you have any examples?

I’m no expert on literature or movies, but my perspective on movies is that sometimes you’ll see main characters that have some kind of weakness and become attractive for that reason. You have a Forrest Gump [Screenplay by Eric Roth] kind of character who sees the world in a unique way and that gives everyone a unique perspective. Well, the science fiction version of that might be Data in Star Trek [Created by Gene Roddenberry], who has certain things missing from his personality and the fact that they’re missing gives you a unique perspective on his way of interacting with what is otherwise a human world.

So that becomes interesting as a mode of storytelling, but it may lead people into believing that we have androids that are similar to Data and obviously we don’t.

You mean that both in terms of mechanics and artificial intelligence?

Yes, both. A Data character has both. Or you can take a HAL [from 2001, A Space Odyssey, Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick & Arthur C. Clark] and you don’t have the mechanics there, but you have an interesting personality.

What are some of your favorite science fiction movies?

I grew up on Star Trek and actually, in some ways, Spock was a bit of a robot substitute because he was trying to suppress his emotions and trying to understand the human condition. And then he was always trying to rid himself of emotion and they came up with the next iteration of Star Trek, The Next Generation, where there was this android who didn’t have emotions and wanted them, the exact situation switched around… you can tell I always liked Star Trek.

And then you have Star Wars [Screenplay by George Lucas] where robots there, C3PO and R2D2, were interesting because they were kind of mechanistic so they had the challenge of giving them personalities even though they were mechanistic.

Another one that’s notable is the Terminator [Screenplay by James Cameron & Gale Anne Hurd] series, especially since Arnold came back and played different personalities inside the same robot.

Obviously, the robots you work with don’t have emotions, but do they have personalities?

Not so much. I think people tend to anthropomorphize everything. It always goes back to it being about us. If your car starts not working very well, you tend to think it’s out to get you. We’ve fallen into that with robots. You, yourself, write the software that is making the decisions on a mobile robot, and you’re watching it drive around and avoid obstacles. Sometimes it does something that you didn’t expect it to because you didn’t completely understand the various subtleties to your algorithms, so you start to think, “Oh, well, what’s it thinking and what’s it doing?” as if it were a separate entity. So it’s just levels of intelligence. We program that intelligence in the machine, so we start to think of it as biological, as if the program running is thinking.

Hollywood does the same, right? It doesn’t so much make robots to be robots as much they make them to be allegories for the human condition.

I think that’s true. I think that’s because it’s what people find entertaining.

But do you ever see robots on screen and say, “That’s ridiculous!”

That’s not just robots, that’s just Hollywood getting science wrong. They do it all the time. Going back to Star Trek. I saw the latest Star Trek [Screenplay by Robert Orci & Alex Kurtzman] movie, and it was entertaining, but it was more like a comic book. They got a lot of the physics wrong. That was a little bit disappointing because the original Star Trek show on TV had a quantum leap over other science fiction shows in its attempt and execution of getting science right.

How about examples like that pertaining particularly to robots?

Hmm... let’s see… Actually, here’s one that they got right recently that I thought was entertaining. They came to talk to us at some point in the process of developing the movie WALL-E [Screenplay by Andrew Stanton & Jim Reardon]. The folks from Pixar came out here looking for ideas. I don’t know how mature in the development process they were, but I went to see the movie, and I was surprised. I thought they made it entertaining, and they got a lot of things right.

What are some cool things going on in robotics right now that Hollywood is missing?

I think a lot of it is already in the movies. JPL primarily works on space exploration systems, but there’s a large part of the robotic community working on military robotics. The reality is that there are a lot of robots that are being used in the military and the projection of what might be done in the future is already out there in movies, something on the periphery of the whole Terminator series would be a direction where robots might go in – and the Battlestar Galactica [Created by Glen A. Larson] stuff. But that’s the negative interpretation of what might happen. It shows robots in a warfare scenario.

It’s interesting to look at some positive areas where people don’t think of robots being used. You have medical robotics, where you have the da Vinci system, which is doing certain surgery. Really, it’s just a tele-operated system, so really it’s just a neat tool for surgeons, but in Logan’s Run [Screenplay by David Zelag Goodman]...

Where they blow up the old people?

Yeah, but if you remember, they also have this ability to do cosmetic surgery with robots. At one point, they go into a salon, which is really an operating room, where they have this ability to slice you and heal you instantaneously. Give you a new nose and face and all. It was really just an extrapolation of this ability to have this robotic surgeon, which we have a little bit of today.

But an interesting thing about that system is that, almost by design, it’s not anthropomorphic because you could almost say one of the problems we have in surgery today is that surgeons hands and vision systems are – insufficient may be too strong of a term – but you can’t make your hand really tiny and thin and go through a tiny incision, so now we want to use a probe to do that. And you can’t put your eyeball on the end of your finger and stick it inside somebody, so instead you do it with a camera. When all the things that a person can’t do drive the design of a robot so that they can do it instead, you end up with a robot that doesn’t look anything like a person. While there’s always a pressure to have anthropomorphic robots, it’s always interesting when engineering pressures drive you into designing something not anthropomorphic because that’s what is really most useful.

There’s a pressure in the real world for anthropomorphic robots?

Both in the research community as well as the real world. I think that, first of all, an “intelligence” that looks like a person tends to get called a robot, whereas if it’s an intelligent machine that doesn’t look like a person, then you just call it a smart car or a cruise missile. That’s the sort of a language decision that biases you toward calling all the things that look like biological entities robots. I don’t know if we can get around that.

The other thing is that with robots, there’s a desire to make things that look like biological entities because they better interface with people and better fit into a world that is designed for people. So, for instance, you might want to make humanoid robots to solve the problem of a domestic robot. Building a robot that looks and acts and functions like a human means it can more likely make its way around the house and interface with all these appliances that are already made for people. Whereas if you were going to start from the ground up, you might not come up with that design. You might come up with something more like factory automation. Some parts don’t look like people.

I guess Hollywood leans toward the parts that look like people.

Yeah, I guess because it’s more entertaining and if you want to think more deeply about it, beyond entertainment, people can learn something more about the human condition, whereas if it’s a more abstract, mechanized presence, then maybe that doesn’t lend itself to that.

It would be interesting to see someone try to create drama around that, as opposed to Arnold with a half-metal face.

Yeah, well, I’m sure somebody will eventually do it and do it successfully, but they’re going to have to be very talented.

Do you have any advice for writers working on projects centered on robotics?

Take a look at what’s really happening at research labs. Talk to some roboticists. Don’t fall into the trap of replicating the stereotypical robotic system that’s already been portrayed before.