Humanoids: Humans or Droids?

In this article, I compare and contrast the depiction of robots in films with reality, taking the example of the robot TARS from the 2014 sci-fi film, Interstellar. While I primarily focus on TARS, I occasionally use another robot called CASE (same model as TARS) from the same film to illustrate some aspects specific to him. The rest of the article is presented under three sections dealing with the mechanical design, personality traits and the technical feasibility of the film’s robots respectively.

TARS’s physical form: Humanoid or not?

Fig. 1 shows the physical form of TARS. At first glance, it hardly looks appealing and is distinctively different from what we commonly call a humanoid robot. A fair description might be “a big black box with movable parts like a Rubik’s cube”.

Fig. 1 TARS

However, a closer inspection of TARS’s form reveals an incredibly complex and purposeful design. The robot has a monolith-like body (inspired from the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey) that is comprised of 4 vertical plinths. These plinths enable the robot to “walk” by swinging about the axis along which they’re connected. Different connections lead to different kinds of walks, a few of which are shown in Fig. 2.

Fig. 2

Furthermore, each plinth is composed of 4 cuboids stacked vertically, each of which is in turn divided into several reconfigurable jointed components. This allows the robot to stick out appendages of varying shapes and sizes for finer tasks such as those performed by a humanoid’s arms, as shown in Fig. 3.

Fig. 3

While TARS lacks a clearly defined torso or head, it does have 2 displays in its upper half that humans can perceive as a kind of face. This leads to the question of whether TARS qualifies as a humanoid robot or not. The presence of versatile limbs and a pseudo face, and the absence of a conventional head or human-like body point in opposing directions.

I feel that there are two parts to this question. Firstly, we need to understand and question the meaning of the term “humanoid”. TARS clearly looks different from a traditional humanoid design. But it is precisely this non-humanoid form that renders it capable to perform “human tasks” efficiently. In such a case, do human capabilities compensate for the lack of a human-like form?

Secondly, does the term humanoid incorporate only physical form or personality traits and behaviorisms as well? The next section analyses TARS along these factors.

Personality and Behavior: Making TARS “feel” human

In the film, TARS is revealed to have certain personality settings. These include humor, honesty and discretion. It is these traits that give TARS a sense of humanity and make him a relatable and likeable character, at par with any of the human characters and arguably more entertaining than them.

There is a lot of insightful dialogue in the film that sheds light on the robot’s personality. For example, the character Doyle says that TARS was given a humor setting so that he would fit in better with his crew. This suggests that humor was considered to be one of the major attributes that characterizes humans and helps robots feel more human.

One of my favorite dialogues by TARS is “Absolute honesty isn’t always the most diplomatic nor the safest form of communication with emotional beings”. He says this to justify his 90% honesty setting when the character Cooper expresses surprise that it isn’t 100%. This seems to indicate that TARS has a fair level of intelligence and understanding of human behavior to be able to judge when to lie to his human companions.

In another scene, TARS refuses to disclose to Cooper how close Dr. Brand and Edmunds were (two characters who were romantically involved) saying he has a discretion setting. This reinforces the impression of TARS’s human qualities.

Apart from these explicitly mentioned settings, the robot’s behavior itself provides insight into the subtleties of robot and human characteristics. Probably the best example of this occurs during a crucial docking sequence where the crew (consisting of Cooper, Brand, TARS and CASE) has to dock their landing ship to their spaceship in orbit that is in rapid rotation due to an explosion. The difference between TARS’s voice, which reeks of urgency and panic, and Cooper’s relative composure is striking. This is a reversal of sorts since most people imagine a human panicking and a machine remaining calm in stressful situations.

This scene also contains a short piece of dialogue that I find particularly interesting. When they first witness the explosion and see the spaceship begin to rotate, Cooper decides to attempt docking. Realizing his intent, TARS says “It’s impossible” to which Cooper replies “No, it’s necessary”. I feel that this demonstrates one of the shortcomings of robots in comparison to humans. While TARS viewed the situation analytically and declared it hopeless, Cooper realized the need to do what is necessary, even though it seemed impossible. A similar aspect is touched upon at another point in the film, where it is mentioned that humans were sent on certain missions instead of robots because we can’t program a survival instinct or a fear of death in robots.

Both TARS and CASE also show evolving character arcs and relationships over the course of the film. This can be related to the parts of the paper that discussed backstory and evolving storyline as a factor in the believability of robot characters. Admittedly, not much is established about the backstories of TARS or CASE. However, the development of their characters over time is clearly visible. TARS develops an almost buddy-like relationship with Cooper by the end of the film, with Cooper giving him the nickname “slick” and a lot of back and forth quips between them. CASE too demonstrates gradual changes in his character.

This is evident in one of his final dialogues to Cooper in which he says “learnt from the master”, acknowledging the numerous piloting experiences he had with Cooper prior in the story. These evolutions in characters contribute greatly to their believability.

Current technology vs. film depiction 

Interstellar is set around a couple of hundred years into the future. The film assumes some advancements in technology in its depiction of robots. A few of these are discussed below:

  1. The most noticeable technologies that the film assumed advances in are speech recognition and natural language processing (NLP). Throughout the film, TARS and CASE converse smoothly with the human characters without a single instance of missed/incorrect speech recognition or misunderstood dialogue. Furthermore, these conversations occur in a variety of environments with different background noises and volumes. It would take huge improvements in today’s technology to reach that level of discourse between robots and humans.
  2. Another technology that is shown to be extremely sophisticated in the film is computer vision. Even though the bodies of TARS and CASE do not reveal any obvious cameras, there are several moments when it is clear that they are receiving an incredible amount of data from their surroundings and processing it accurately. For example, during the above mentioned docking scene, on being asked to analyze the spinning ship’s rotation, TARS immediately replies that it’s 68 rpm. This either implies highly advanced image processing or that TARS has access to the spinning ship’s controls and data. Later in the same sequence, TARS operates a small joystick in low-lit conditions to align their ship perfectly below the spinning ship in order to dock. Such fine control in a small and poorly lit space would require excellent computer vision and image processing systems.
  3. Lastly, the mechanical design of the robots looks futuristic and is probably not realizable by today’s technology. The design itself is ingenious in creating a re-configurable versatile body that can function in multiple different modes according to the task at hand. However, it poses many challenges such as balancing the vertical body in uneven terrain, making the robot walk using block-like feet without slipping or tripping etc. In particular, complex movements such as CASE racing over a water body like a spinning water wheel (Fig. 2) or TARS galloping like a horse across icy uneven terrain would be extremely hard to execute.


The article is authored by Samarth Bahuguna.


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