Tony Prescott, the Director of Sheffield Robotics shares his thoughts on robot companions, real and imagined, focusing on some of the best known screen robots of all time, those of the Star Wars film series—C-3PO, R2-D2 and most recently BB-8. What do these iconic droids tell us about our future relationships with robots?
Each of these Star Wars companion droids reflects some of our cultural notions about relationships and friendship, and I think that they have also helped to shape our ideas about how real robots should look and behave.
Most of today’s robot builders grew up with Star Wars, and some may even have started building robots because of Star Wars. Who knows how many children growing up now may be inspired to build robots because of the plucky, self-propelled beach-ball that is BB-8? So let’s look at the Star Warsrobots and see how they reflect cultural history and human psychology and how they might be helping to shape technology and our future relationships with actual robots.
First, C-3PO. See-Threepio is a humanoid, ‘he’ (we’ll come back to the gender issue later, but he is referred to as masculine in the original script) looks and talks how we imagine a robot ‘butler’ should behave. He is polite, always helpful, but a follower rather than a leader. In terms of appearance, C-3PO deliberately recalls the gynoid (female robot) Maria from Fritz Lang’s early Science Fiction masterpiece Metropolis.
In that movie, the robot Maria incites a rebellion and is eventually destroyed, a contrast to the utterly loyal C-3PO. Maria, and many other movie depictions of humanoids—the Terminator series for example—show humanoids as dangerous and at risk of becoming out of control (recalling the Frankenstein myth and general fear of the ‘other’). C-3PO, however, reflects that other archetype of the mechanical as a trusted friend—the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz and Robot from Robot and Frank. Lacking the human imperative to survive at all costs, these robots reflect the idea of the robot as a servant or helper of mankind; somewhat emasculated but better for it.
R2-D2 and BB-8 represent a different kind of robot companion. Both robots are decidedly non-humanoid, indeed, they are distinctly robotic in their appearance and movement. Unlike many robot companions, both fictional and real, they don’t even have a face or eyes (though a rotating head is a common feature). Neither robot speaks—or at least not in a language that is intelligible to ordinary humans.
The earlier sci-fi classic Silent Running may have been the first to make boxes on legs that seem ‘alive’, but Stars Wars’ moving pillar-box “Artoo” brought this idea into nearly every home with a TV. Disney’s Wall-E also built on this tradition—cleverly perching two telescoping eyes on a yellow recycling bin and making us fall in love with it.
Despite their clearly machine nature, these robots have strong personalities and enduring appeal. Indeed, they recall a different natural archetype of companionship—the animal friend. From Rin Tin Tin, to Lassie, Snowy, Baloo, even Scooby Doo, animal companions in film and literature—particularly dogs—have the quality not only of bravery and enduring loyalty but also of special powers (or at least distinct abilities not shared by humans). Real companion animals are often seen in a similar light and those that display unusual levels of devotion and courage are often treated as heroes. Both R2-D2 and BB-8 have these “super pet” qualities, of being at their master’s heel and ready to spring into action, but also showing some independence, even willfulness, then turning up at exactly the right time knowing instinctively what to do.
But now there are real robot companions. Read our upcoming blog post to learn how actual robots today can offer some of the promise of these fictional ideals.
This is a modified blog post from the AHRC website.