Robots and romance: science fiction and science

Valentine’s Day is coming up… Do you want to sneak in a robot movie to watch on your date night? Wondering if robots and love are possible? Here are five recommendations for sci-fi movies with a discussion of real-world robotic science. And don’t forget to check out Learn AI and Human-Robot Interaction from Asimov’s I, Robot Stories – it’s a great introduction to social interactions!

Can roboticists be the ideal partner? The original from 1975 The Women of Stepford supports “yes” – if your definition of the perfect partner is limited to appearance and willingness to selflessly perform subordinate tasks. The film, and the book it’s based on, extrapolated advancements in animatronics at Disney which had opened the Hall of Presidents attraction in 1971 to great acclaim. The assumption was that the hardest part in creating a human surrogate is creating robots that looked and moved like humans.

Mimicking human movement and facial expressiveness is certainly a challenge for robot mechanics and control, think of Hanson’s Geminoid and Ishiguro’s Geminoid series of robots. But physical fidelity is not the same as creating the artificial general intelligence needed to avoid the strange valley or hold a meaningful conversation. Learn more about the science of making realistic robots here.

Creating the perfect sexual partner is a real challenge in robotics, with large capital investments in the sexbot industry. This poses real legal and ethical problems. See RTSF’s interview with Dr. Van Wynsberghe of the Foundation for Responsible Robotics here. The FRR has worked to get governments to define policies – see their report Our Sexual Future with Robots. As a woman, I appreciate The Campaign Against Sex Robots which argues that fulfilling sexual fantasies with sexbots that would make even Takashi Kovacs blush in Altered Carbon have toxic gender, cultural and mental health implications. Check out the excellent article on the legal status of sexbots in the United States here.

Nominally a horror movie, The Stepford Wives is likely to make both of you grateful for any positive relationship you have with each other. But get the 1975 original, not the 2004 remake.

Can roboticists create a robot better than us in social interactions, including in love? In the 1987 movie Make Mr. Right, a neuroatypical scientist, played by John Malkovich, builds an android, also played by John Malkovich, who is much more socially competent than him. A publicist is in charge of managing public relations and teaching him to be more emotional. Love ensues.

Social interaction skills are a hot topic in human-robot research, seeing the large number of papers in venues such as the annual IEEE/ACM conference on human-robot interaction. But, unfortunately, most of the touted skills are social engineering tricks that make us think robots have human skills. Noel Sharkey has a great series of articles on this type of advanced/salon trick in robotics.

Making Mr. Right is a romantic comedy, not particularly good, but it is *the opposite of The Stepford Wives and, well, a romantic comedy. It might inspire a few hugs.

Can’t roboticists get to where we can just download our brains to speed up the process of making more human robots? In science fiction, it never works, and three films illustrate how it could lead to tainted love. Saturn 3 and Eve of Destructionand demon seed (FYI, the book is way better than the movie) are delightfully MST3K-worthy movies. All three have robot creators uploading their brains, apparently missing the Freud and Id class. Whoops ! Each film has prominent actors, including Harvey Keitel, Kirk Douglas, Farrah Fawcett, Gregory Hines and Julie Christie, who likely regret their decision to participate.

In the real world, downloading probably won’t work either, even if we can change our ID. There is work on transfer learning and brain-computer interfaces, but this work is more about motor skills and control, not abstract reasoning and memories.

If being together means throwing popcorn at a big-screen TV and shouting derisive comments, then any of these three films is a great choice to watch with your loved one! My favorite is Saturn 3.

Here is another link to a slideshow on emotions in robots and the general topic page. Whatever you decide to watch, have fun and keep learning about robots!

Robin Murphy is the Raytheon Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at Texas A&M University and vice president of the nonprofit Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue.

Robin Murphy is the Raytheon Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at Texas A&M University and vice president of the nonprofit Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue.

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