Monday, December 19, 2011

Me: films and robots

My first post in over a year, so lets start with something silly :-)

I'm sure that anyone who is working, or has worked, with robots has been influenced in some way (if not inspired) by some depiction in a work of fiction - most likely film - whether they choose to admit it or not (those who don't are probably lying). I'm quite happy to admit to this - and can point to two such robotic intelligent devices. What precisely about them gave rise to this influence I don't know - and I don't really want to deconstruct it in case it turns out to be ridiculous and/or trivial - but here they are nonetheless for you to assess.

Johnny 5 is alive!
The first one is the amazing - and actually fairly realistic (in terms of achievable mechanical complexity) - Johnny 5 from Short Circuit. I can't really say enough about this dude - I did really want one of the little mini-me's from the second film though! I can't really remember the first time I watched this, but I do know that over the many occasions I've watched the films I'm still drawn to it, despite the occasionally dodgy special effects (I'm thinking of the dancing)... 

The second one is the intelligent space-ship/robot arm thing in the Flight of the Navigator - 'Max'. I'm not entirely if this is supposed to be AI robot, or alien-being-controlling-a-robot, but any device that can fly a spaceship, go manic, and time-travel is alright in my book. The single eye-on-an-arm-thing was a bit strange, though even with such a fairly simple setup, the array of emotional expression was really quite impressive.

(I've only just realised that both of these films were released in '86 - this is just coincidence, as I watched both on TV a number of years afterwards - I didn't watch them in the cinema or anything). I'm not sure sure these would be the choices of most people - and I'm not going to bring age into it - but they're mine :-)

Having said all that though, there is a bit of a cautionary note I think. As much as the portrayal of the robot in science fiction is of course hugely beneficial in terms of building and maintaining interest in these synthetic devices, I do wonder sometimes whether this actually has the long-term reverse effect: building expectations of what such devices can do, not just beyond that which is currently possible, but beyond that which is even probable as possible. In the end, would this just not turn people off when they realise that the real state-of-the-art is actually fairly mundane? Or that what people like me think of as really quite exciting in terms of development just pale in comparison with the vividly recreated imaginations of script writers and graphic designers? In the end, surely such levels of unfulfilled expectation will serve as a damper on funding initiatives (am thinking of potential career prospects here...!) - "but what you are trying to do isn't really exciting, they were talking about it in the '70s/'80's/'90's/etc...". Either that, or the reality drifts so far from expectation that most people don't understand what's going on, and you end up in the same place. But that is perhaps for another discussion, on public engagement with science...

Or maybe I'm reading far too much into all of this, and should really just sit back, relax, and enjoy the view...


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