“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” Much has happened since the beginning of the story known as Star Wars that currently spans nine movies, books, cartoons, and even a holiday special buried in the deepest reaches of the Internet and forgotten Betamax archives. While the type of aliens, spaceships, and planets change throughout this epic, one constant is the collaborative robots, known as droids, which follow the Star Wars heroes throughout the story. R2-D2 and C-3PO serve as major characters in some of the movies and in others you might see a quick glimpse of them to help tie things together.
With a few notable exceptions, like the droid army of Episode I, robots in this universe seem to mostly function as close companions to humans to help with various tasks. C-3PO, for example, is fluent in “over 6 million forms of communication.” R2-D2, in contrast, has limited communication skills but can record and store video messages, repair electronics, hack into foreign computer systems, and perform various other tricks with gadgets hidden inside its compartments.
When the first movie came out in 1977, robots certainly existed but were mostly restricted to industrial applications inside dedicated work cells and in experimental laboratories. Forty years later, robots that work with humans, known as cobots, are a reality and are becoming more common and capable all the time. It’s interesting to see how creator George Lucas’ vision of this type of robot didn’t change throughout the series, but real-life tech is just starting to catch up.
Lucas seems to have navigated the idea of the so-called “uncanny valley,” where robots elicit a positive emotional response from humans up until they become close to human-looking, at which point they start to be perceived as disturbing. C-3PO, for instance, is shaped very much like a human but is entirely golden and metallic. Unlike more menacing characters from other movies, no one would presume that he would try to disguise himself as a “meat-person,” but instead, he was simply trying to fit into our world from an ergonomic standpoint. While you might think this was just a lucky design choice, as Obi-Wan Kenobi said, “In my experience there’s no such thing as luck.”
The nonhuman design is taken even further with R2-D2, whose shape is nothing like a human and who communicates with beeps and whistles. One can’t help but think that part of the appeal of this bot—besides its ability to pop whatever is needed out of a secret compartment—lies in the fact that it acts like and seems to almost want to be a human, without quite having the proper communication skills or opposable thumbs. Perhaps this alludes to the idea that we as humans need our egos reinforced by something that, although equipped with superior intelligence, still wants so badly to be like us. You might even think of it as a sort of pet, who beeps and bloops instead of barking and whining.
What about durability? If cobots are to work with humans on a day-to-day basis, they need to be durable and easily repairable. Lucas thought about that as well. R2, for example, gets shocked, dropped, beaten with Yoda’s staff, covered with mud, and exposed to a copious amount of sand, but even after all the time it takes for a galactic empire to rise, fall, and then rebuild itself into the New Order, this tough little droid is still ticking, but certainly after many hours of repair work. C-3PO, on the other hand, appears to be a bit frailer but does feature modular parts—such as a red arm—that can be installed in the field. This is demonstrated, in the Empire Strikes Back, by Chewbacca’s quick repair work. We also learn that C-3PO doesn’t appreciate his head being installed backwards, even if it can nominally function this way.
Of course, these aren’t the only collaborative robots in the galaxy and maybe not even the droids you’re looking for. Other bots of note include the GNK “Gonk” droid, which basically acts as a large walking battery (perhaps it would feature a Molex® Sealed Industrial USB connector for its interface port if it were made in this galaxy). It’s worth noting that the Molex connectors here on earth are used to achieve superior signal integrity in harsh applications requiring an interface between computers and electronic devices. With fast installation and robust pull-out resistance, these overmolded cordsets with integral strain relief allow for the fast transfer of data.
And of course, there were the little square droids that scurry around empire installations, doing who-knows-what. While not collaborative in the sense of working closely with humans (or other biological life forms), one can’t help but think of modern surveillance drones, when a floating robo-creature relays information to the Rebel base on Hoth to Vader in the Empire Strikes Back.
It’s hard to say where the path of robot development will go in the future, but it’s interesting to see it following a trend of robotic work cells to robots that work in close collaboration with humans, even as they do in Star Wars. Perhaps one day our robots have the same kind of autonomy as they do in the Star Wars galaxy. We can only hope that they will stay generally benign, or at least, under the control of humanity!
*Theme image copyright Twentieth Century Fox, courtesy of MovieStillsDB.com.
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