While we stayed indoors, robots had a fantastic outing recently. They have typically been viewed with distrust, even suspicion. In the pandemic, they stepped in to do many of the things we couldn’t. In hospitals in Europe, they disinfected patients’ rooms and waiting areas. In Walmart stores across America, they rolled through supermarket aisles and warehouses, taking inventory, cleaning floors and reminding shoppers to wear masks. They learnt to deliver essentials to quarantined families in China, patrol border areas in Israel and scan parks for people violating curfew in Singapore.
They’re taking on delicate tasks too. In New York state, at least 2,000 animatronic cats and dogs are part of a wildly successful loneliness intervention programme for seniors. Old people have talked to and played with their fake furries so much, the batteries have worn out. An overwhelming majority of seniors say the bot-pets make them feel less lonely.
At the Finnish Center for Artificial Intelligence, bots are learning how to type like humans. They’re taking cues from our rapid eye-and-finger connections when we text on a touchscreen. They detect and correct errors too. The University of Texas at Austin has a robot soccer team. The bots played a virtual RoboCup this year.
Indian bots are becoming game-changers too. Next year, a fleet of Doots, indigenous humanoid bots, will campaign ahead of assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Goa, Punjab and other states. The aluminium-frame machines, developed by Onestand India, come with a wheelbase, can bend forward and back, lift objects, orchestrate gestures, shake hands and wave to the public. It’s a great way to reach out to a constituency safely in a pandemic, believes the company’s director Kumar Kanhaiya Singh. “Star promoters need to conduct more rallies and gatherings, which are neither possible nor advisable in the current scenario,” he says. “Through AI-enabled voice recognition, the humanoid will speak like the politician hiring them. Interactions will be reviewed periodically by a team that will have answers to common questions updated after every review.”
And when our Gaganyaan mission takes off in 2023, on board with the human crew will be Vyommitra, ISRO’s spacefaring humanoid bot designed to record the effects of weightlessness and radiation on the human body in space.
“It’s like watching fantasy become reality,” says Dr Sudhir P Srivastava, a veteran heart surgeon who grew up marvelling at C3PO in Star Wars. Srivastava has developed Mantra (Multi-Arm Novel Tele Robotic Assistance), a bot that can perform minimally invasive surgeries at a much lower cost than imported robot systems. At the Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Institute last year, Mantra assisted surgeons in 18 complex urology, gynaecology and general surgery procedures in a single month.
“There is a general distrust of machines, still,” Dr Srivastava admits. “But robots are just extensions of the body. They do what a hand and eye can. They won’t move unless prompted. We’re not teaching robotics in medical colleges yet, but I see lots of motivated young doctors wanting to learn how to use them. Bots can go where we can’t, like remote or unsafe areas, and do more precise work than we can. It’s a tremendous opportunity for India. We have to learn to work with them.”
But can they think?
Alan Turing’s 1950 test was simple. If a human, conversing with both man and machine, couldn’t tell one from the other, it was a sign that we’d reached a point where machines had attained consciousness. Today’s robots can not only use language, they can learn, remember, predict, create, laugh, collaborate, distinguish between human and animal, human and machine.
New tech is pushing science to address a different question: the Hard Problem of Consciousness. Or what’s it like to have feelings and experiences?
Australian philosopher David Chalmers, who developed the question in 1995, accepted that humans had a consciousness, an inner life, a soul – but that didn’t explain why the feeling of being self-aware existed at all. Even today, scientists are hesitant to define what it means for a machine to be self-aware. Admitting to the possibility would mean admitting machines could have feelings, opening robotics up to the moral issues of rights, control, motivation, equality, consent – conflicts that still plague humans.
Fiction, as always, is imagining our next moves. Books, films, TV shows, even games have long depicted the possible. Now, they’re tackling AI ethics. Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro’s new book, Klara and the Sun (Penguin; 2021), is told from the point of view of an Artificial Friend, a solar-powered robot companion. She’s self-aware, smart, innocent and optimistic and programmed to love. But is she human? And have we let her down already?
Take a look at the most memorable robots on screen, the ones to hold dear and the ones to fear
The most loveable and trustworthy robots have been those programmed for children, or have been child-bots themselves. You’ll want to squish (or be squished by) Baymax from Disney’s Big Hero 6 (2014), a bot that starts out as an assistant and guard, but ends up a father figure. Or have adventures with Doraemon, the cat-bot from the future, sent by your own grandson so you can clean up your act in the present. Vicky from Small Wonder could do homework and chores (she once even shed tears).
For servitude without the sociology lecture, just use a bot. The futuristic Jetsons employed Rosey, who came from U-RENT A MAID; had a boyfriend, Mac; and mopped up every spill. Andrew from Bicentennial Man (1999) started out as a robot butler but humanised over time, even swapping his metal components for lab-grown organs.
Wall-e, Earth’s last 700-year-old trash-compacting bot from the 2008 film, is a hopeless romantic, a fan of old movies and a seedling saver. What’s not to love? Good service bots don’t even have to save the world.
Rick and Morty’s Butter Robot is sentient, mobile and built for one job only: to pass the butter.
Even when they’re infused with humanity, some bots stay friendly. Sonny from I, Robot (2004) is determinedly pacifist and even artistic through a robot uprising, letting us glimpse his blossoming identity. On Star Trek: The Next Generation, Data is not just the android who hilariously can’t keep up with humans’ complexities. He’s the bot who wants to be human so badly, he gets a new brain with an “emotion chip”.
In a galaxy far, far away, you can’t be certain of anything. Luke and Leia turn out to be siblings. Darth Vader turns out to be their father. Oddly speaking, Yoda is. Thankfully the chrome droid C3PO and the astromech droid R2D2 are dependable in every core Star Wars film. They understand each other. They’re on your side. Even BB8, bouncing about in later films, is fun, without the cloying cuteness of Baby Yoda.
Some days, you just want a bot you can share a beer with. Bender, from the 2000s show Futurama, is that bot. He was built to shape metal girders into assorted angles. What he does now: lie, gamble, solicit sex worker bots, steal, smoke and drink. He’s got porn in his RAM too. If you’re a morose drinker, find Marvin the Paranoid Android. The bot from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is smart, sad and always stuck saving the day. You’re buying the beer. At happy hour, find the Three Robots from Season 1 of Love Death and Robots, the mechanical survivors making sense of their human-less post-apocalyptic world. Why isn’t there a spinoff?
Marvel’s Vision was created to destroy the Avengers, but chose to join them and fight for good instead. But some bots need parenting as much as programming. Remember Chappie, a good robot in that terrible 2015 movie? As the first machine to possess consciousness, he was smart and emotional. Turns out, humans can’t raise him right, leaving Chappie flawed but also fun, much like a human.
Oh, to be Johnny Soko! In India, ’80s kids knew him as the little boy with the wristwatch radio that controlled Giant Robot. Across 26 episodes, the robot flew, shot bullets from his fingertips, had weaponised eye-beams and terrorised the evil Emperor Guillotine. And he was loyal only to Johnny. Meanwhile, Tars from Interstellar is probably the film’s best character. He comes with a sarcasm setting, is excellent at quantum data collection and can seven sense a betrayal coming. Pity he’s so delicate.
In Wong Kar-wai’s films, even bots have secrets. One part from his 2004 film, 2046, features Tak, a Japanese manon a chilly train, fleeing memories and grief. He ends up falling in love with a beautiful unnamed android assistant. Tak fully believes she loves him back and will disembark with him, until it dawns on him that her slow responses are not from tech. She’s in love with someone else. Being rejected by a gynoid finally gives him the strength to move on.
Takeshi Kovacs, the cyborg soldier hero from Netflix’s Altered Carbon, has been medically enhanced to almost a weapon. He can change bodies too and his pattern recognition abilities are superb. And yet, he’s utterly trustworthy. As long as you’re one of the good guys. Other hunks of metal can have hearts too. The Iron Giant from the 2015 film is a 50-ft beast armed with laser vision and energy cannons. But he’s also buddies with a nine-year-old boy. Sure he can annihilate enemies. But he chooses to play, read comic books and dive into the lake.
Where does being human stop and being a machine start? The question is at the heart of Ghost in the Shell (1995). Its cyborg crimefighter, Motoko Kusanagi, is a wise old soul in a hot young woman’s full-body prosthesis. She can kick your ass and have fun doing it. And she has the prettiest eyes of any robot yet.
Maria might be the oldest bot on our list. The character from Metropolis (1927) was created by a mad scientist in memory of his dead wife. But she’s not saintly. Maria entrances men and drives them crazy with lust. She makes them murder each other, abandon their children as the city starts to flood. Womanly wiles, back then at least, were scarier than tech.
Then there’s sly, sly Ava. The star of Ex Machina (2014) is barely a face, feet and hands. The rest of her is all machine. But has she achieved consciousness? Are you falling in love with her or falling for her charm and seeming vulnerability? Should you trust her story or her maker’s? Why would a gorgeous robot so willingly open up to a stranger, anyway?
Be a little afraid of RoboCop. The star of the 1987 film (and the 2014 remake) used to be human before his accident. He’s part machine now and a little unstable. The new tech that fuses software and synapses is buggy, with disastrous consequences. You can’t exactly call tech support when RoboCop murders someone. Give him and a wide berth.
On the one hand, Westworld (2016-2020) seems like a waste of tech. Android hosts, programmed to never hurt humans, are stuck in, of all things, a Wild West adult theme park created for humans to live out their depraved or petty fantasies. On the other hand, the robots are slowly becoming self-aware, changing character and even harming other bots. We’re looking at you, goody-goody Dolores, aka the Deathbringer.
Blade Runner’s replicants are not the droids you’re looking for. The AI-fuelled bio-engineered replicas of humans only live for four years. But they can cause absolute mayhem in that time. Roy Batty, a Nexus 6 Combat Model, has already led a gang of replicant escapees, and is willing to kill humans who don’t think he should have a longer life. Stick around for his dying monologue ; even a hard-hearted bot just wants to live, like tears in the rain.
Being the villain bot in a drama is bad enough. Being one in a comedy is the ultimate betrayal, dudes! Benign slacker buddies Bill and Ted have no idea that someone in the future has built evil robot Bill and Ted replicas. He’s sent them back in time to kill the real guys so they don’t win a band competition. Poor Bill and Ted die, and must team up with Death himself to save the day.
Don’t drop your guard in space. Ash might seem like a quiet science officer aboard the USCSS Nostromo in Alien (1979). It’s only later that we find he’s a Hyperdyne Systems android and, worse, a sleeper agent. It’s more than bad code – Ash has no regard for the lives of his human crew. No wonder Ellen Ripley, who finally decapitates him, ends up hating droids.
Even if your name isn’t Sarah Connors, hide when the Terminator (aka the T-800) is loose. The cyborg assassin feels no pain, knows no fear and cannot be reasoned with. He’s destroyed in the first film but lookalike Terminators keep emerging in sequels, melting, reforming and becoming harder to eliminate.
Could Ultron, Marvel’s smartest, deadliest robot villain, be T-100’s ultimate match? He makes superheroes quake. He thinks all of humanity is irrelevant, he wants to destroy us all. The sentient machines are coming for you. And they don’t have an Off button.
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