Robots 3D: Coming to a Science Museum Near You

IEEE member creates a film about robots that act and look like humans

16 June 2015

Image: National Geographic

“The next step for humanity may not be human, but humanoid.” That is the message in a new film Robots 3D produced by IEEE Member Jini Durr, who explores how a new generation of robots can work, play, and even look like me and you. Created for children and young adults, the film will be playing in science museums and centers around the world starting this month.

Durr, an award-winning producer who has worked in high-tech entertainment for more than 20 years creating films for IMAX 3-D says she produced the film because “Who doesn’t like robots?” But it was also to inspire children like her daughter. “Robotics can spark an interest in any number of fields of science,” she says. “I make educational documentaries out of a commitment to bring subjects like this to the general public.”  

The film is funded by defense company Lockheed Martin and distributed by National Geographic Studios. IEEE has also been involved in the making and promotion of the film. Erico Guizzo, IEEE Spectrum’s senior editor, worked as the lead science advisor on the film, and Mark A. Vasquez, senior manager of IEEE Meetings, Conferences and Events, is helping with partnership and promotion. 

The Institute talked to Durr to find out more about the film (and more importantly, robots).

What does it take to make a humanoid robot, or a robot that can do anything humans can do without the need for a brain? 

The task of replicating human functions is perhaps the greatest challenge there is for robotics experts. Humanoid robots need mobility and manipulation, sensory systems like vision perception, and advances from fields such as artificial intelligence and human-robot interaction.

But, ultimately, as I say to kids, to build a smart humanoid takes really smart humans. The more one learns about the field of robotics, the more one becomes aware of how remarkable human beings truly are. This is something we do not think about every day. 

How close are engineers to replicating some of these particularly challenging human characteristics?

There have been tremendous developments in humanoid capabilities in the past two years, but there is still plenty of room for improvement. The most difficult characteristic to replicate is still perhaps autonomous intelligence, which of course is the most essential quality of being human. Roboticists are getting closer, but we’re not there yet.

Why are engineers even attempting to create humanoids in the first place? (Haven’t they seen the movies in which robots get angry and take over the world?)

The challenge of replicating human actions and thoughts brings with it breakthroughs in all areas of science, engineering, and even biology and psychology. Our environment was built for the human form and it makes sense to have robotic technology that can work in this environment, whether opening a door, climbing stairs, or using human tools. 

Of course, there are dangers in most any technology, but humans control the programming so it is a question of human control. Logistical issues could arise.  For example, you wouldn’t want a huge robot like Atlas to step on your poodle, so any autonomous faculties would need to take into account sensitivities to our environment.

In this film, you’ve met quite a few robots. What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever seen a robot do?

The truth is that simple day-to-day tasks that humans take for granted are still extremely challenging for humanoid robots. I’m amazed by the seemingly straightforward operations they are able to accomplish, such as being pushed over and able to keep their balance or pick themselves up using the environment around them just like we do.

But robots still remain inconsistent and have difficulty dealing with unpredictable or unknown environments. Robots doing dishes and folding laundry are pretty cool tricks I’ve witnessed as well, but again these tasks are done slowly and inconsistently. Your clothes and your dishes are still in jeopardy for the time being.

I also enjoy seeing kids interact with robots. They are fascinated and come away with many questions. That curiosity is inspiring.

If you were to make a Hollywood film about robots, what would the story be?

I love science fiction, but I am perhaps more intrigued by what it means to be human. I have always enjoyed the Star Trek episodes where Commander Data (an Android who lacks social cues but is otherwise humanlike) and the crew are challenged by that question. What makes us human? From producing this film, it is very clear to me that it is not easy being human or humanoid. We are a long way off from creating Commander Data in real life.

Visit the Robot 3D website to find film screenings near you and to get access to hands-on STEM activities, such as building circuits to exploring motors and sensors. IEEE members: Show your printed or digital membership card and receive a discounted rate for film showings.

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