Of course the reality of most robots is that they are designed to do all sorts of repetitive, difficult and dangerous tasks - including, perhaps most famously, the kind of bomb disposal shown in 2009’s The Hurt Locker. The trailer-towing machine in the film’s opening scenes is an HD-1 made by Tennessee company Remotec, and it’s almost unique in cinema history in being a reasonably faithful representation of a robot. Particularly because the HD-1 isn’t made to look slickly hi-tech: it requires delicate handling and struggles with the conditions. It features in one of the tensest sequences in a recent best picture Oscar-winner....and yet I doubt anyone would nominate HD-1 – even if they knew its name – as a favourite fictional robot.
The dominance of the real by the imaginary is so great I used to wonder what would happen if you went out on the street with a mime artist dressed in something that looks vaguely futuristic and with their face painted silver, and got them to slowly and “robotically” respond to commands. I suspected quite a few passers-by would be likely to believe this was the latest robot out of the labs in Japan. More likely than if you showed them a bed that transformed into a wheelchair or something with 24 fingers that gave you a cut and blow dry.
I say used to wonder, because earlier this week I was talking to one of the UK’s best known roboticists, Noel Sharkey, Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics at Sheffield University, and I told him about my robo-mime idea. “Already been done”, he told me. “I know a couple of ‘people robots’ who act it out all the time”. And is anyone fooled? “Really fooled”, he laughed, “one of them was pretending to be R2D2 in Dublin and she got kicked down the stairs... by boys who thought she was a machine. So she was pretty convincing even when she screamed”. Maybe that’s a job for a real robot instead.