The Most Realistic Robots Represented in Movies? Probably the Killer Ones

Not only science fiction anymore.

Cinematic robots can be cold-blooded killing machines, like the shapeshifting T-1000 from the Terminator franchise. But they can also be polite and cleanly like Rosie from The Jetsons. And while these two characters might seem like they’re still trapped in the realm of science fiction, precursors like military-built mechanical dogs and an army of home bots are already here. That means that, at least some of the time, the film-makers and television writers of yore actually got their robot predictions pretty close to being right.

One of the specialties of roboticist Dr. Robin Murphy from Texas A&M University is studying these cinematic robots for clues about what the future holds. And unfortunately, Murphy tells Inverse that some of the most realistic robots from the movies are not the lovable drinking companions like Futurama’s Bender, but the terrifying killer-robots that want us humans dead.

Murphy arrived at that conclusion after living every sci-fi head’s dream by investigating which movie robots might actually come to life. She recently published a paper detailing many of her findings in Science Robotics. In an interview with Inverse, she laid out a definitive list of four famous bots that could be here in full form very soon or are already living amongst us.

Gunslinger - Westworld (1973)

The original Westworld film had Yul Brynner play a gun-toting android that malfunctioned and began murdering guests of the wild west themed amusement park. Known as the Gunslinger, the human-like machine had thermal vision and advanced hearing capabilities. Roboticists have already imbued machines with the ability to sense heat as well as the voice recognition software that we see in many smart speakers which let machines hear and understand. But it’s the fact that Gunslinger goes rogue that Murphy finds the most realistic.

“The original Westworld holds up pretty well, though it was an exploration of automation, not sentience,” she explains. “Gunslinger is essentially a factory robot with a gun, just doing its job. And like a factory robot, it is unaware that everything has changed and that it should stop.”

This goes to show that humans have a good understanding of building automated building machines, like the robot arms that put together Tesla’s Model 3. But while we have loads of robots that can be programmed for a given task, we’re still a ways away from artificial consciousness, which would enable machines to achieve a human-like level of self-awareness.

What that means is that today’s robots and their more powerful follow-ups have the potential to become dangerous if the task they’re programmed to do is taken out of the proper context. Until they can be imbued with more human-like ability to process information, they’ll keep doing what they’re programmed to do no matter what.

Robot Cockroaches - The X-Files (1996) Season 3 Episode 12

In this episode of the science fiction drama, a town in rural Massachusetts is overrun by a swarm of killer, robotic cockroaches. Special Agent Fox Mulder, played by David Duchovny, believes the pests are extraterrestrial probes sent to eat poop to harvest methane as a fuel source.

Murphy believes they’re one of the best pop culture examples of behavioral robotics. This type of A.I. mirrors the natural behavior of certain insects that react to sensory information rather than fully understanding the world around them: think Roomba.

These cyborg cockroaches are effectively steered by using electrical signals to trick its antennae into detecting obstacles. 

Abhishek Dutta/UConn.

“They used behavioral control— a paradigm in A.I. robotics that emulates the layers in biological intelligence,” she explains. “The lowest layers are reactive, where the agent is essentially guided by stimulus-response routines called behaviors or schemas. In some regards, cockroaches aren’t too bright but they are pretty darned smart when it comes to not being stepped on.”

The bug’s body, speed, and resilience have been the inspiration for a multitude of robots, for example the cyborg roaches recently developed by researchers at the University of Connecticut. They attached a tiny circuit board backpack connected to the bugger’s antennae, which allow them to control its movements. This half-bug-half-machine is being tested to be used for scouting in rescue missions and not for dung collection. Sorry, Mulder.

Huey, Dewey, and Louie - Silent Running (1972)

Named after Donald Duck’s nephews, this trio of blocky robots helps Freeman Lowell highjack a spacecraft in the post-apocalyptic science fiction film Silent Running. The crew of service bots waddled around serving as mechanics and companions, a lot like R2D2 if it had two identical buddies that helped it get things done.

“The three little-legged robots are so realistic,” Murphy explains. “They are fully situated, distributed agents, therefore each one makes their decision based on what they are perceiving. In a critical situation, two of the robots do one thing and the third does the other, just like a group of people.”

30 drones flight like a flock of birds and light up then night sky.

Zsolt Bézsenyi

Murphy is describing a concept known as multi-agent robotics or collaborative robots that leverage the power of multiple simple robots instead of creating a singular super intelligent machine. It’s like multiple organs coming together to form a system.

The concept of having individual robotic bodies act as a unit may be pivotal to developing robots that are actually helpful, for example by devising a way for the delivery drones of the future to keep from crashing into one another. A team of European researchers recently figured out a way to do this by having a group of 30 quadcopters mimic the flight of a flock of birds.

Robot - Robot and Frank (2012)

Finally, the humanoid helper in the sci-fi comedy-drama Robot & Frank nails what machines like SoftBank’s customer service robot Pepper could soon evolve into. In the film retired jewel thief, Frank Weld, played by Frank Langella, is gifted a domestic robot to help him around the house. After some hesitance, Weld embraces the robot and even uses it to relive his heisting days.

While this isn’t exactly how Murphy envisions home robots that one day help the elderly, she says with some hardware innovation bots could get older people active around the house. This would look a lot like the above clip, when Robot tries to get Frank out of bed.

“Frank, it’s crucial that we establish a set schedule for your day to help keep you oriented,” Robot says. “Frank, I’ve reviewed your medical records. Are you finding your episodes of disorientation increasing in frequency?”

The biggest obstacle that still needs to be overcome is melding together intelligent software with nimble and capable hardware. Robot is able to garden, hop in a car, and serve food without missing a beat. At present, assisted living robots are limited in their mobility even in Japan, where they are quickly gaining traction to help wrestle with the country’s aging demographic.

SoftBank's Pepper could provide the emotional company to keep elderly people company.

Flickr / collision.conf

By 2050, roughly 40 percent of Japan’s population will be over 65 according to a 2015 analysis by the U.S. Census. Pepper is used in about 500 Japanese elder care homes and offers many Japanese human-like interaction, but with limited mobility. Similarly, a Panasonic-built bed robot, Resyone, can split in half and become a wheelchair isn’t exactly as human as Pepper, but can offer people more mobility.

Both options also cost a pretty penny. Pepper costs over $13,000 and the Resyone beds come in at $8,600. Bridging the hardware gap and fusing it with A.I. software will take time and making all of that affordable will take even longer, but the initial steps have been put into motion.

“Eldercare robots still have a long way to go to get to Robot’s level, but Robot and Frank got the human-robot interaction right,” she said. “A nursing director of a major hospital angrily ranted at me about how roboticists design robots to appeal to guilty children, not to actually do what the seniors want them to do. Fair enough. Of course, maybe giving seniors like Frank Langella control isn’t a great idea either.”

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