The Future of Robotics, Part 2: What we can learn from movie robots

In the first part of our expert roundtable, we asked AI whiz and CMU assistant professor James Kuffner what it would take to breathe life into C-3PO. Now we turn to Matt Denton, who runs an animatronic company in the U.K. and is no stranger to movie robots.

Sure, those bad boys on the big screen are fiction, but advances in robotics are happening all the time. What could be realized now? And will we see protocol droids (or badass Terminator endoskeletons) walking down the street in our lifetimes? Click Continue to find out.

Robot-Roundtable-Matt-Denton.jpgMatt Denton, founder of Micromagic Systems, supplies robotic and puppet-control equipment to the entertainment industry. His personal creations often take the shape of six-legged, face-tracking 'bots, and he has worked behind the scenes on movies such as the Harry Potter series and the latest Lost in Space.

Denton's iC Hexapod has made numerous appearances on DVICE, and wowed crowds abroad. He's also developed a robotic kit based on his iC design so folks can assemble their own.

DVICE: Is a robot like C-3PO an improbable dream?
Denton: I wouldn't say C-3PO was an improbable dream, but even with the massive advances of technology and the exponential growth of computing power I just don't think I will meet him in my lifetime.

Having said that I remember my father's first mobile phone. It was about the size of a car battery, weighed about the same as a car battery and had a standby time of four hours! Now if you told me that in less than 15 years I would have a phone that was smaller than a cigarette packet, had a video camera built in and would work nearly anywhere in the world, I probably would have said it was improbable. Lets hope I'm also wrong about C-3PO!

What would a 'bot like C-3PO be good for, anyway?
I think there would be countless situations where a C-3PO-like robot would be at least as good if not better than a human. For example, so many people who need care for various reasons such as old age, illness and disabilities could benefit from a robot like C-3PO. However, this then raises an ethical question: Why should or would a robot be any better at this role than a human?

I can't help but think that the robot has the advantage of never giving up, losing patience or growing tired, but could or would it form an emotional bond with the patient? Then again, could it outperform its human counterpart because of those things?

Matt-Denton-iC-hexapod-on-display.jpgMatt Denton's original robot, iC Hexapod

How far along is robotics toward those ends?
At this point I believe robots are still fulfilling their roles as assembly machines. This is something they have been doing for some time now in situations such as car manufacturing and have been doing it well — certainly faster and more efficiently than us mere mortals. Having said that, they didn't work out how to do this for themselves. We built them and then programmed them, so maybe they're not that bright after all.

There are of course many more practical uses for the robots we currently use, but for now I think robots are still very much in their infancy with the majority of robotics still in the research and development stage.

In what ways do you think we come close to C-3PO?
Have we come close to C-3PO? I would say no! Maybe we have in small ways, and for sure the first time I saw Asimo walking up and down stairs and following somebody around a room, I was blown away! But we still have so much further to go. For example, how often did C-3PO need to stop and charge his batteries? Although we have seen huge advances in battery technology over the past decade, a long-lasting power source still seems to be one of the biggest problems with mobile robotics.

Also, just think about what seems like a simple task to say a ten year old: Catching a ball. This seems like a relatively simple task, and of course it would be reasonable to think that a specific machine could be built to track and catch a ball using various sensors and a large catching bucket, but it's vastly complex for a humanoid robot.

Matt-Denton-favorite-robots.jpgJust for fun, what's your favorite 'bot of all time?
This is a tricky one, as I love the design of robots like ED-209 (from RoboCop), Terminator and even the robot I helped build for the 1997 version of Lost In Space (bad film, great robot!). But my all-time favorite robot creations would be the Nexus series from Blade Runner, with Rachael and Pris at the top of my list… Woof! (Technically Deckard was my favorite robot, but there seem to be a bunch of people who still aren't convinced he's a replicant. Come on!)