Thousands upon thousands of brilliant scientists around the world have been working for decades to build robots whose abilities mimic those of humans. Most people don't learn about humanoid robots from any of these scientists, however — they learn about them from movies like iRobot and the Terminator series, in which they're portrayed as violent and terrifying.
Humanoid robots tend to get a bad rap in pop culture, but National Geographic's new documentary ROBOTS 3D brings out the strangely likable personalities of some of the most amazing human-like robots around today. The jovial robot "actor" named RoboThespian serves as the host of the film, and introduces viewers to a diverse cast of robot characters. From the endearingly clumsy robotic butler named HERB to the very serious robots that compete in the DARPA Robotics Challenge, the characters drive home the point that these machines are designed to help humans, and they have tremendous potential to do good.
Robots have a place almost anywhere in our lives – in our homes, at work, out in space, in medicine – the list is endless. The fact that wherever there is a human, you can probably find a robot is part of what makes them so simultaneously frightening and alluring. It's also why an immense amount of time, effort and money has been invested in this technology.
But humanoid robots still have a very long way to go before reaching the level of sophistication we're used to seeing onscreen. Tech Times spoke with director Mike Slee about what he learned about the status of humanoid robot development while making this film and how he made these oft-vilified machines so likable.
[An edited transcript of Tech Times' interview with Mike Slee follows]
How did you choose which robots to feature?
The initial research was massive — just to find out what robots were out there. As we were researching, new robots kept appearing. It was a bit like chasing the carrot. Even over the course of the time that it took to make the movie, every single robot in the movie had already been superseded by a new version of itself. That goes to show how quickly the technology is moving — it's phenomenal. It's kind of exponential in the sense that the more a robot is able to learn, the quicker and the more sophisticated it can become.
How do learning robots accelerate the development of this technology?
One example was iCub, which is a learning robot. When we began the research, the scientists said that iCub is the equivalent of a one- or two-month-old human being. By the time we finished making the movie – which only took us a year – they said that iCub is now six years old. So we had this extraordinary case of watching the technology fast tracking before our very eyes. And that was very exciting.
It's partly to do with the fact that most humanoid robots are kind of basic technology at this moment. They may appear sophisticated on some levels, but they're nothing like the science fiction — the stuff you imagine or dream of or have nightmares about. They're still very much in their infancy.
In which ways do you think that this particular moment is an important time for the general public to get educated about what's going on in the world of humanoid robots?
I think that we're at a tipping point with humanoid robots. We've arrived at a place where even though we have the technology to make a machine that's like us, we can see the potential — we can see that down the line, we might be able to do it. I believe it's been a kind of fantasy up until the last five or 10 years. It's been in the imagination and in the dreams of scientists and writers and imagineers. But now the technology and the ability to process information is coming together. It's not that it's all happening now, [but] everybody can see that it can happen. The future is now there to head toward — the map is clear.
In a few probably hundreds of years, but certainly in a good few lifetimes, there are going to be humanoid robots that are as good at or better than robots at many tasks and they will be part of our lives whether we want it or not. They are here to stay.
In regard to that "whether you want it or not" aspect — a lot of people are frightened by the idea of humanoid robots. How did you grapple with that issue while making the film?
It's a very deep-rooted fear, the idea that humanoid machines will take over. I guess it's fair enough, especially as so much thinking and literature and movies and so much popular culture has dealt with the concept of humanoid robots — and in the majority, the story turns out bad for humans. That really isn't the case, if you actually look at what's going on. Ultimately, the human has always got the plug.
The ability to use robots – especially humanoid robots – for good is the prime focus of near-enough all the scientists. There is a lot of military discussion going on, but – and I'm not just saying that as a sort of PR thing – it's near enough every single robot scientist (certainly the ones working on humanoids), is so focused in doing good for humanity in the best way they could. There's a massive positive energy and focus — whereas I think in the science fiction, the idea that robots take over and it's bad news is kind of more dramatic storytelling. It's why you tell those stories — it's not much fun if your monster just rolls over and does nice things.
How did you go about bringing out the personalities in these robots?
The personality in the robots, bizarrely, is innate. When you look at these machines that are in some way like a human being, you automatically project a personality onto them. Everybody does it, even the established, old-school scientists who refuse to call a robot 'he' or 'she' — they always call them 'it.' Even they will drop their guard and go, "He's over there," and point to the robot, and then realize that they just made that mistake.
What we found when we were making the film is that it was like working with actors — where you had this story to tell, or this documentary element to put together, and you had to get the camera in the right place to interact, and then you had to coax the performance from the robot. And there's a lot of that going on, because near enough all of the humanoid robots at the moment are a massive compromise, even the ones that look like they're almost there, such as ASIMO. It's a lot of smoke and mirrors. ASIMO has many, many, many limitations.
That's not to say it's not the most extraordinary machine to be beside, because it is. It's a very unnerving experience in the way that you lose your ability to be dispassionate, and that is a reflection of us, I think, more than the machine. And that is actually where a lot of humanoid robot development is heading, because children have an affinity for these machines. They can learn to read or they can learn behavior or throwing and catching a ball from these machines. And it's the same with people with special needs, whether it's the elderly or autistic — the connection that's being made with the machine is quite extraordinary and powerful and has a lot of potential. It's very exciting.
If this weren't an all-ages film, what would have loved to include?
We tried to create a genuine spectrum of what's out there and what they can do. Obviously, there are dark places where these machines can go and just like human beings, there are elements where you have the potential for the machine to do bad or to do the more extreme. But I think, to be fair, there is nothing that we hid from the general public. Even the rescue robots that we showed clearly have the potential to be robot soldiers. That is pretty obvious when you look at them in action, when you see them scrambling across the rough terrain or opening doors or whatever they might be doing. You can see that it's only a hair's breadth from becoming a soldier robot.
So I don't think that there are any areas where we should be afraid because nobody's talking about it. There's obviously the potential for the robots to become sex workers, the potential for the robots to become some kind of group doing the will of a bad person, but that, again, is down to the choice of the human being. The machines are not making any choices in all of this. And I found it very interesting to be close to a humanoid and see, still, that I was looking at a kind of strange mirror... especially when the facial expressions are creating feedback, that's very curious, because they don't quite do it right. They can't quite connect, but they get 90 or 95 percent of the way there, and that in itself is strange — it's like slightly off-key body language.
What makes you hopeful about the future of humanoid robots?
How far the science has come is quite extraordinary. How far it still has to go is spectacularly amazing. We humans are the most extraordinary machine, creature, piece of technology, however you want to put it — we are quite unique. And at the moment, the robots are far from becoming 100 percent human. That's exciting, and I guess reassuring for the people who are fearful, but for the scientists, it's creating this fascination in what makes humans work. Because they want to make machines that can do the things that humans do, it's driving the science and the study of human beings as much as it's driving the science and study of the technology. It's a great marriage.
The hardest work when you are a humanoid robot scientist is deconstructing the incredibly complex human being in order to try and replicate it in a machine. The single message that I got from every single scientist is that every day they try to make humanoids, they realize how brilliant humans are.