Sunday, April 24, 2011

Robby the Robot & The Power of Movies

Working on an article about robotics and biomimetic design, I've been thinking a lot lately about what it is about robots that can be so enthralling. Due to the portrayal of robots in the entertainment industry I think that many of us view robots more like the humanoid servant than a tool that humans can use to accomplish a task. But what is it that has ingrained in us the idea that the "robot of the future" will serve our every whim?

The portrayal of robots in movies and television is one of the most persuasive and widespread mediums for disseminating the idea of the robot servant. While I was interviewing robot researchers and connoisseurs, Robby the Robot from the movie Forbidden Planet kept coming up as the prime example of this ideal mechanical man. But, I had never heard of Robby. Somewhere in the back of my mind I had heard of Forbidden Planet - but I decided to look into just what is so special (for so many people) about this one movie robot.

Robby the Robot was developed in the late 1950's, more my parents era than mine (which is firmly rooted in the late 1980's and early 1990's.) Designed for the 1956 sci-fi movie Forbidden Planet, Robby wasn't the star, but he certainly stole the screen. He is one of the first examples of a robot that broke into mainstream recognition - and had lasting effects on how the public viewed robots.

The movie's human star is Leslie Nielsen, playing commander J.J. Adams - sent to a strange planet to check up on a colony of scientists that have stopped communicating with earth. The plot is kind of twisted. I mean, it involves monsters that are completely powered by the human brain, given that a race of aliens figured out how to enhance the capabilities of the human brain so that it could hold the monsters. Twisted.

Robby is the servant of Dr. Morbius, the only scientist from the original expedition that wasn't killed under "mysterious" circumstances. As a character in the film, Robby is actually very important - he is the first being on the planet to meet Adams' expedition, and comes in throughout the film demonstrating his domestic abilities and his loyalty to his masters. He provides comic relief (learning how to make bourbon) and ultimately ends up a hero, short circuiting rather than following his master's orders to murderous ends.

In searching YouTube for footage of Robby, I found this great history of his role in the film and how he became a cultural icon - even making it into the robot hall of fame (yes, there is such a thing!)

What I find most interesting about Robby the Robot is the anthropomorphic nature with which he was designed. Anthropomorphism is giving non-humans, human traits. For example, when we say that our dog feels guilty - guilt is a complex human emotion, and even if dogs do experience certain emotions they probably don't experience "guilt" as we humans would define it. Another example (and probably my favorite) is the 1987 classic movie the Brave Little Toaster. The title says it all - talking toaster. Toasters don't talk, let alone go on adventures that require bravery. Yet, by putting human characteristics onto a metal box, we end up with quite the heroic toaster.

The idea that Robby is part vacuum cleaner (the head) part washing machine (the body) but with arms and legs that can clearly be defined as parts of the body helps explain why Robby is so appealing. Because he "looks" like humans we understand how to gage his movements or gestures and what they mean. It makes the robot seem more real.

The fact that the robot was really a suit worn by a human shows just how human-like Robby was, despite being so complex in design and engineering. I think the comment made in the video clip - that finding out that Robby wasn't really a working robot was like finding out that Santa Claus isn't real - says it all. Robby set a standard of expectation for a generation of children/teens about what robots could and should be.

I think that this image of the robotic man has continued to permeate pop culture, so that even today more than 50 years since Robby was designed, we all still want a robot butler. It can be hard to accept that even though Robby seemed so real, it was really just a suit worn by an actor. We still don't have robots so human-like that they can think for themselves or act the way that Robby does - and we probably won't in my lifetime. But that doesn't mean that today's robots aren't still useful and cool in their own right. We just have to be realistic about the capabilities of engineering - and learn to accept that a robot like Robby still exists only in the movies.


  1. Thanks for piquing my interest in robots. It is interesting how we perceive them as potential slaves to humans. I even anthropomorphized a little when I read that, thinking, but robots should have rights too!