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Fiction Meets Fact: Robotics in Today’s Sci Fi

How do you watch a film that plays with scientific principles, especially when you’re an expert who knows exactly where the film is getting it right…and wrong? That’s the dilemma faced many of the scientists we interview here at Recursor. As we chatted about robotics with Vassar College’s John Long (read the interview here), we asked him his thoughts on which science fiction films handle the science of robotics accurately.

One of the biggest challenges in making robotics believable in films is a problem that plagues other genres too — a repeat of the same old tropes and story lines. “My problem with most robot-related movies is they’re really just versions of R.U.R.,” says Long.

Written by Karel Capek, R.U.R. tells of a future in which the use of robots is ubiquitous. Superior to humans in every way, the robots eventually revolt. If that plot sounds overly familiar, it’s because you’ve seen it in everything from the Terminator series to the conflict between Data and Lore in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

“What Capek was writing was a response to industrialization,” Long notes. “The apocalyptic mindset is deep in our culture.” That mindset can lead science fiction to focus too much on the idea of an all-seeing Skynet that wants to destroy all humans. “I get bored with that,” he says.

Wall-E by Pixar, Disney - Robotics in Science Fiction / Recursor.tvSo, what appeals to a robotics expert? The answer, as it turns out, starts with Pixar and Disney.

“My students love WALL-E,” Long says. Here’s why: “WALL-E does something really well in terms of robotics. It captures the fact that robots will be built as specialists, instead of generalists.”

In other words, the common trope that robots can do it all is not likely to happen in real life. More likely by far are machines dedicated to one function that they execute with precision. WALL-E’s function is trash collection, while EVE’s function is identifying signs that Earth is habitable. “That’s perfect,” says Long, “because that’s how robots are built.”

What other films get artificial intelligence right? Science has a great article on it, but we asked Long about it too.

“I really like Humans (on AMC),” Long says. “It’s about a not-too-distant future when androids do the dull, dangerous and dirty work. Some seem to have been programmed to have self-awareness. There’s some brilliant acting in the show. And what they are exploring in the show is a good thing to explore — how humans relate to our technology and what do we want our relationship with technology to be? Humans explores this in a very thoughtful way.”

What about Westworld?

Westworld is captivating,” Long says. “Here is a world designed for humans, but also for the robots. The robots of Westworld are fragile. They can only work in their specialized world. If you’re creating a generalist robot, it must understand how the environment is constantly changing. One of the constraints is that these robots can’t go out of their created environment.”

Whether or not the science is right, good science fiction boils down to whether or not it’s good entertainment. “I’m finding Westworld to be a well told story,” says Long.

Battlestar Galactica by Universal / Robotics in Science Fiction via Recursor.tvAnd it’s fine to draw inspiration from prior works. “Both Humans and Westworld owe a debt to Battlestar Galactica (the reboot),” Long notes. All these stories tackle philosophical issues around both artificial intelligence and humanity, such as whether religion is unavoidable in human systems, what makes us human, what is consciousness, and more.

In the end, it’s not surprising to see so many films about robots. “Robotics is everywhere — in space, war, the operating room,” says Long. “There’s so much going on that it’s an ongoing conversation.”

And that’s what science fiction is all about.

Professor John Long, photo credit Evan Abramson via

Professor John Long, photo credit Evan Abramson

John Long is Professor of Biology and Cognitive Science at Vassar College, where he also serves as the Director of the Interdisciplinary Robotics Research Laboratory. With help from his students and collaborators, he publishes his research in the fields of biology, computer science, and robotics. His teaching has been featured in “Robotics,” a 24-lecture program created by The Great Courses. He is the author of Darwin’s Devices: What Evolving Robots Can Teach Us about the History of Life and Future of Technology. He served as a robotics consultant for Recursor’s original interview series, Nina Unlocked.)