Derek Scherer is a former U.S. army robotics engineer. He now works on special effects animatronics for character robots in movies through his Kansas City firm Golem Group. His film work includes Man of Steel and The Hobbit. Companion robots can’t just do their jobs, he told me—they should be as charming as our favorite cartoon characters.
Humanoid robots aren’t very charismatic yet. Will we want to share our lives with them?
A companion robot is something you’ll want to have because it does valuable work for you—but only if it also has an engaging character and personality, entertaining you through the way it interacts. Otherwise it will be no more interesting than a washing machine.
What is going to make robots so engaging?
We need look no further than the entertainment industry—TV, movies, animation, and video games—to see how lifelike a synthetic creature can be. Think of Pikachu in Pokémon, or Bugs Bunny. A robot with their character traits would be pretty engaging. My perfect service robot would have the chipperness of Kermit the Frog, for instance.
What do we need to make that happen?
A change in attitude on the part of roboticists, who need to realize that when designing character robots with big personalities, they are assuming the role of puppeteer more than autonomous systems designer. After all, it is nothing more than replacing the puppeteer’s hand with motors. That’s a tough pill to swallow for some engineers.
Will mimicry appeal or will it seem unoriginal?
It isn’t so much about mimicry as making more interesting robots by taking lessons from centuries of theater and animation. Bugs Bunny was not designed to look like a regular rabbit, or a slightly altered human. They created a brand-new character because the artists decided painstakingly, through iteration and development, what would have the most pull for the audience.
So what characteristics of, say, Kermit would you program into a domestic robot?
Kermit has a resiliency I like—when he’s knocked down, he gets back up. He’s got a great attitude. There is an element of slapstick, too: the giant clapping mouth, and not much room for a brain case—these are endearing features. Kermit isn’t completely dumb, but of course he is not on our level. When robots do work for us, we won’t want them to be smarter than us—a more intelligent robot is not actually a more endearing robot.
What other characters have you considered as good models for companion robots?
Dobby the house elf, from the Harry Potter movies. If we took a servant robot, we could give it a Dobby personality. Well, maybe with a bit less self-flagellation than the movie Dobby [laughs]. But he’s loving, has character and a personality, and seems biological. He has all the right traits.
If robots start to become autonomous, will designers no longer be pulling the strings?
Akin to puppeteers, we are still directing the movement and sounds and appearance of the robot to create this entertaining experience. If the system later becomes autonomous, you will have still played the role of puppet master.
This article originally appeared in New Scientist.