How Star Wars reflects and shapes our ideas about robots

An earlier version of this piece was published by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in February 2021 under the title Droid dreams: Robots Companions in Reality and Imagination.

Its May the 4th (“may the force”) so I’m taking a look at Star Wars‘ robots to see how they reflect cultural history and human psychology and how they may 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 and is played by a male actor) 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.

Robot Scooby Doo

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 wilfulness, then turning up at exactly the right time knowing instinctively what to do.

Personal Butlers

But now there are real robot companions. Or at least there are actual robots that offer some of the promise of these fictional ideals.

Many Japanese robot builders have been drawn to the humanoid model with Honda’s Asimo often specifically demonstrated in the ‘robot butler’ role. Asimo has not been seen in public since 2018, and was never available in the shops, but Pepper, the humanoid robot developed by Softbank Robotics, has been sold to many Japanese homes as having the emotional intelligence and faithfulness of a companion (outside Japan it is being promoted to a more corporate market). Less than the height of most people, with a head like a rugby ball, wheeled-base, and a constant look of mild surprise, Pepper is less humanoid than C-3PO but still clearly takes the human form as it model (the gesticulating hands are a give-away).

Nevertheless, humanoid robots like Pepper and Asimo have a problem. It is easier to make robots that look and move like a human (up to a point anyway) than it is to build human-like social intelligence. For this reason, humanoid robots can be disappointingly short of conversational flair. If Pepper is a trusted friend ‘he’ is not one who is going to surprise you with amusing banter except where it has been cleverly pre-programmed with one-liners by some human wit. Of course, there is all the vastness of the internet for Pepper, and other humanoids, to trawl for answers to questions, but the ability to construct a conversation on the fly, that is well-matched to the situation and to who the robot is talking to, is one of the biggest unmet challenges in Artificial Intelligence (AI). Our human sensitivities are also acutely tuned to anything about a social ‘other’ that seems a bit unusual; for humanoid robots it is easy to stray into this ‘uncanny valley‘ leaving us with a real sense of disquiet.

The Question of Gender

Should a robot be a ‘he’, ‘she’ or ‘it’? Of course (most) robots don’t have sexual parts, and they certainly don’t have DNA, so gender is defined by appearance, behavior, and ultimately, how the robot is perceived. This creates a further difficulty. If a robot is tall and strong people might think it masculine; short and meek, they might think feminine, but this is awkward. The makers of Pepper describe it as a ‘he’ perhaps to avoid this kind of gender stereotyping. But should Pepper be gendered at all?

The robot ethicist Alan Winfield has argued that robots should not be gendered because of the subliminal effects this might have on how we think about other people, but how to enforce that? Even if designers studiously work towards an androgenous look—size, pitch of voice, movement, and ways of talking all include unavoidable gender cues. Humanoid robots also risk reinforcing other implicit biases. Lucia Jacobs, a keynote speaker at the 2017 Human Robot Interaction Conference, criticised the ubiquitous use of white or cream plastic in designs for prototype companion robots as reflecting an implicit ethnic bias—#RobotsSoWhite.

Robots as Pets

So what about non-humanoid robot companions? Roboticists in Japan, ahead of the game again, created Aibo, Sony’s robot ‘dog’, back in the 1990s. Despite selling over 150,000 robots, production of the Aibo halted in 2006 much to the dismay of its customers some of whom cherish their robot pets to this day. Arguably, Aibo was ahead of its time, and it has recently made a comeback, in a new and even more puppy-like form, with more play and learning capabilities. Since the turn of millenium, the idea that small non-humanoid robots might become part of lives has gradually taken-off. Most obviously, robotic toys such as Hasbro’s Furbies and FurReal Friends, and Wowee’s Chip, seek to tap into our fondness for non-human friendship, more subliminally, more and more of us have robot cleaners or lawn mowers showing that you dont have to be living to seem purposeful or to be useful around the house. But could this kind of robot companion even fulfil a social need?

There is some evidence that people with an animal pet enjoy longer life, through reduced risk of heart disease, and report fewer feelings of loneliness. Maybe some of these benefits could transfer to a robot pet that doesn’t need to be walked or fed (except on electrons) and won’t be outlawed by your lease? On the technology side, while we cannot match human social intelligence (yet), building an animal-like social capability seems more achievable. My own research into biomimetic robots has led us to create MiRo—a small pet-like robot with engaging animal-like behaviour and appearance. The current prototype is designed for research and education but the long-term market for robots like MiRo may be as home companions for people who feel their lives would be enriched by a pet—biological or artificial.

Robots as Liminal Entities

In the latest Star Wars trilogy robots continue to thrive. C-3PO and R2-D2 are looking old and have less to do, but in terms of character and role the spherical BB-8 has spun into R2-D2’s non-existent shoes, and in the latest episode, Rise of Skywalker, we have the miniature cone-faced D-0 as a BB-8 side-kick (recalling the odd-couple pairing of Threepio and Artoo).

I love that BB-8 is a big ball that rolls in any direction, its head balancing mysteriously on top of its body as it spins and bounces along (it’s not just cinema magic though—the company Sphero built miniature BB-8s that actually do this). BB-8 and D-0, like R2-D2, and to some extent C-3PO, all celebrate the machine nature of robots. They all need running repairs and can have their memory wiped, most have heads but not faces; but they also have life-like qualities that we immediately recognize including personality and—despite being manufactured—individuality. The ‘liminality’ of these creations—that they seem to straddle, or fall between, the categories of machines and animals is fascinating. Indeed, in the future we may come to think of real instances of this kind of robot as belonging to a new class of artificial ‘life form’. Some people may worry that we are being conned into caring for things that are “just machines”, but they also remind us that it is our life history and memories that give us our (human) uniqueness, as much as our one-of-a-kind biological inheritance, and it is our shared history with other social beings that leads us to care for each other.

For the moment, we will continue to be entertained by fictional robots, but beyond that, I believe we may find that actual robots, that are designed to complement rather than replace human friends, can enrich our lives, and may meet some of our emotional needs by providing new and different forms of non-human companionship (for more on this see my blog entry can robots support our human need for social connectedness?). Meanwhile, I hope there will be further Star Wars‘ robots to come, to entertain and inspire us with ideas about human-robot partnership and complementarity.

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