If Movie Robots are the Future, What Do Their “Ancestors” Look Like Today?

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Humans have always been fascinated by the idea of “artificial humans”. Creatures like Frankenstein’s monster and Tik-Tok, the mechanical man in Ozma of Oz, have been featured in fiction since the 1800s, even before the word “robot” existed. 

It was only in 1920 that Karel Čapek coined the word to describe the artificial living beings in his play Rossum’s Universal Robots (R.U.R.). Derived from the word “robota”, which means “drudgery” in Czech and “work” in Slovak, the robots in R.U.R. were made to work in factories but eventually rebelled and overthrew the human race.

It’s a story that keeps repeating itself. 

In the fictional stories we tell, robots are either machine-shaped with human-like personalities or they’re human-shaped with machine-like personalities. The former is endearing, the latter always adds some kind of horror to the tale. 

The way robots are presented in stories reflect our fascination and fear for robots in real life — part-curiosity, part-fear. We want our robots to be useful, but we’re afraid they might replace us. 

For every feature article about how robots are the saviours we need, there’s another about how “the robots are going to take our jobs”. 

But the truth is, we’re still pretty far away from either scenario

If we’re looking for robots to truly help us out in our day-to-day, there are still a tonne of development issues we need to figure out. If we’re worried about them being sentient enough to “overthrow their human overlords”, we need to start making robots that are more intelligent than rats

But let’s take a look at where we’re at. Think of it as an exercise in curiosity. We’re going to compare some of our favourite movie robots with their closest robot relative currently available in the market. 

Source: D23


He has been a fixture in both the Star Wars movies, as well as the books. Known for his friendship with fellow robot C-3PO, as well as an uncanny (for a robot) ability to lie, Artoo has been as much of a hero in the Star Wars universe as any of his human counterparts. 

Purpose and function

R2-D2 is an astromech droid, a robot that acts as an autonomous mechanic or sometimes, co-pilot on starships. 

Astromech droids were compact enough to travel through tight spaces and didn’t need a suit to be deployed outside the ship. Like a Swiss-army knife, they had their own tools stored in the compartments built into their bodies.   

Besides performing repairs, astromech droids also had a dedicated socket on starships, where they could slot themselves into to perform their co-piloting duties like calculating hyperspace jumps, as well as controlling other flight and power distribution systems. 


Although R2-D2 seems to have a personality of his own, he unfortunately can’t communicate quickly with humans because he speaks only in binary. At the same time, due to his lack of legs, his movement can sometimes be limited. (Imagine him trying to climb stairs.)

Current closest relative

Probably the closest thing we have to R2-D2 right now is SPHERES or Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites.

Originally created as a class experiment when a professor challenged his students to create the floating droid that Luke Skywalker used when learning to channel the Force, SPHERES has now evolved into robots that run experiments in space, perform mundane tasks for space crews and help develop software for vision-based navigation.  

How close are we to an R2-D2?

Although SPHERES robots have been updated and replaced by more advanced models like the Astrobee, they can still only be used in very specific situations and have to be programmed accordingly. 

Are they useful? Yes. Are they conscious enough to lie? Probably not.  

Source: Sky


Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth-Class (we humans love our acronyms, don’t we?) is the titular character in the Disney/Pixar movie WALL-E. After 700 years of performing the task he was made to do, he developed some “glitches” that resulted in him becoming sentient and developing a personality.

Purpose and function

WALL-E is, as his name suggests, a drone that was made to collect waste. Created by the Buy n Large corporation and programmed to clear up the garbage-filled Earth while humans lived on spaceships like Axiom, he has arms with shovel-shaped hands, “legs” with treads, as well as a body cavity made for compressing trash. 

Since he was made to survive for a long period, possibly without any human maintenance, he has the ability to perform repairs on himself. His regeneration unit is also solar-powered and he has solar panels on the top of his chest that open out to maximize sunlight collection. 

All his features — from his visual acuity to the laser between his eyes — were designed so that he could fulfill his directive to collect, classify, process and dispose of trash.  


Like R2-D2, WALL-E has limited mobility and is also not able to communicate in “human languages”.

Current closest relative

Although it’s been over 10 years since the movie came out, the closest thing we have is Volvo’s autonomous garbage truck. The truck is equipped with sensors and can move on its own. However, it has to be trained by a human when it is first used on a particular route and even then, has to work in tandem with a human to actually empty trash bins along the route. 

How close are we to a Wall-E?

We may not be as close to a sentient trash-collecting robot like WALL-E that can handle the entire waste management process on his own. But we do already have robots that can separate waste. We have robots that can lift, machinery that can compress items. Perhaps all we need is to find a way to put all those separate parts together and provide it with the right amount of training data to get closer to having a WALL-E. 

But will it be able to fall in love? Probably not anytime soon. 

Source: Ultimate Classic Rock


Also known as the T-800, the Terminator is an android (not a cyborg) created by the fictional company Skynet to go on potentially dangerous missions. It has a robotic endoskeleton that’s covered by living tissue so it could pass off as human at first glance, which makes it perfect for covert operations.

Purpose and function

In the first Terminator movie, the T-800’s main purpose is to destroy John Connor, the man who would one day lead the human resistance against the machines. In The Terminator (1984), the T-800 was sent from 2029 back to 1984 to kill John’s mother, Sarah Connor. 

The T-800 is basically a human-shaped spy / weapon. Besides being able to pass off as human, it is also able to mimic voices, analyze its surroundings and figure out solutions, as well as use a wide range of tools and weapons. 


Although the T-800 in Terminator Genisys (2015) has managed to develop a semblance of human emotion, the T-800 generally displays a lack of emotion. It may look human, but its robot-like speech gives it away.  

Current closest relative

If you were one of those kids who got nightmares after watching The Terminator, here’s something that will put you at ease. The closest thing we currently have are lethal autonomous weapons

Although they’re frightening in their own way, they certainly don’t look like a human and are much easier to spot. 

How close are we to a Terminator?

If the movies have any truth to them, we are nine years away from Skynet taking over the world. It’s scary to think about human-like killer robots wandering around. While it seems like a far off possibility, there must be a reason why over 1,000 artificial intelligence experts signed a letter calling for a ban on autonomous weapons. 

But could these weapons walk hidden among us? Not at the moment, thank goodness! 

Source: Vulture

The missing piece

Take all the other robots in movies and compare them to the most similar robots in real life. You’ll start to see a pattern. It may be possible to replicate form and function but one key thing is missing — personality.

There’s a reason why we fall in love with or are frightened of the robots on the silver screen. But it’ll probably be a long time before we develop robots that have actual personalities.

When it comes to developing algorithms for the wide range of emotions that a sentient being would feel on a daily basis, we still have a long way to go. 


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