Robots That Jump

Robot Bodies Needed Before Robot Minds

Robots That Jump – Historical Apr 27, 2004

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

The guy making I, Robot can’t read so good
There is a video “featurette” on the website for the movie “I, Robot” with director Alex Proyas. In the video he describes the movie “I, Robot” as a “documentary of the future.” Certainly, some aspects of the movie are likely to show what the world will be like in 30+ years – robots will be everywhere. But this is an accident – it is clear that this movie is just about as wrongheaded as can be.

Here’s the key. During the interview, Proyas indicates that he read the original “I, Robot” book by Asimov. He then goes on to describe what the I, Robot stories are about, and dumps a howler that left me speechless.

According to Proyas, the Asimov stories are about these robots with “absolute, unbreakable laws” – but the “point” of the stories is that the “robots always manage to break them.”

Frankly, I don’t think this bozo (or anyone else on the movie) ever read the books. Proyas’ description of “I, Robot” is exactly opposite what the I, Robot stories were about. If you don’t believe me, read them. Hopefully, you can read better than Proyas.

The point of the Asimov books was to show that the robots were following the dictates of the three laws perfectly even when it initially appeared they were not. At no time anywhere in any of these books does a robot ever “break” or “circumvent” the laws – instead they follow them to the letter. The detective-story interest of “I, Robot” is in figuring out how a given robot’s strange behavior can always be deduced from the Three Laws.

Sorry, Proyas, the robots never break or circumvent the laws in the classic series. There is one uppity robot described in the story “Little Lost Robot” who has a weakened version of the Second Law. But even here, the human heroes find the robot by applying the Three Laws to predict its behavior. In later stories written after “I, Robot” a few robots get around the First Law – but only by creating an even more powerful Zeroth Law that forces them to guard all of humanity.

The reason Asimov took this approach was specifically to counteract the exact thinking behind such “mad robot” stories like the forthcoming “I, Robot” movie. When Asimov began writing the “I, Robot” stories in the 1940s, he wanted to explore what robots would really be like if created. He assumed they would be machines obeying their programming with behavior predictable from their programming. They would not be driven by human interests. They would not “circumvent” their programming. In creating “I, Robot” Asimov was fighting against the legions of pseudo-robots churned out by entertainment media in the 1930s whose interests matched those of criminal human males: meglomania, sexual appetite, and a desire for violence. These pseudo robots were just “bad boys” in metal suits, a sort of gangster in a sardine can.

Asimov is currently spinning in his grave at high speed because of this dumb-ass “I, Robot” movie. This movie is a mockery of what Asimov tried to accomplish with the “I, Robot” stories. Asimov wanted to show what robots might really work like. Instead, his anti-“mad robot” stories have been co-opted into a “mad robot” story. Sigh…

I should feel sorry for Proyas. Either he can’t read (unlikely), can’t comprehend what he is reading (unlikely) or was told by the publicity people to jack up the “mad robot” angle even if it violates the letter and spirit of “I, Robot” (most likely). I liked his other films (e.g. “Dark City” and “The Crow”) but this demolition of Asimov’s work is going to suck. Of course, the Hollywood distributors, publicists, agents, and other peabrains with their lips spraying their cellphones with saliva don’t have the slightest idea there is any other kind of robot other than a mad robot. This is because robots have been fantasy for 100 years and Hollywood implicitly feels that they somehow “own” the concept of robots. And the only Hollywood concept for a robot is a Frankenstein monster.

Contrast this drivel with the behavior of real robots, e.g., the Sony QRIO conducting a symphony orchestra, industrial robots making cars, or a robo-lawnmower. It is laughable.

One final thing: I note that the “I, Robot” movie trailer displays some of the worst aspects of computer animation (routine violation of the laws of physics in a virtual environment). This is supposed to be a “documentary of the future.” But no robot will be able to jump hundreds of feet and land in a concrete-shattering splatter – any more than robots will be able to casually knock each other through building walls a la Terminator 3. No robot will be able to jump and hang in the air for dramatic effect – the real world has gravity. These false images come from the “no rules” world of animation, not the real-world potential of robots.

You know, the “I, Robot” movies thus far looks oh so 1990s – jack up reality via “Matrix” style special effects and “sledgehammer” the audience into submission. Throw in a lot of dark scenes with edgy Goth leather to to appeal to Gen-X. Tell them there’s a conspiracy. Indicate that robots are something a nameless “they” are creating to force upon us in a dark future.

But we are in the 2000s now, and robots are becoming real at the same time that audiences are increasingly bored with no-effort, X-treme computer animation. Gen-X is giving way to Millennials, a puzzle-solving Harry Potter generation. As the tweens and teens today grow up making robots in school via their participation in real robotics contests like the FIRST robotics competition, they will make a very different future. They have a “reality check” and see robots as something they create, rather than something the nameless “they” impose on them. The dark meanderings of “I, Robot” will seem like something the older generation was suckered with. They will reject this X-Files stuff as something only old people are dumb enought to believe.

In 35 years real robots will be everywhere, last-century fantasy will be out, and the “I, Robot” movie will seem like it was made a decade too late. Why worry about cool graphics when you can work with the real thing?

Possibly, some people in the coming robotic age will even be motivated to go back and read the original “I, Robot” book – and see how Asimov was thinking much closer to their mindset – instead of the mad robots churned out by “rebellious” Baby Boomers in the movie industry. Hopefully, somewhere, Asimov will be able to see his vision restored…

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