Today's Paper Digital FAQ Obits River Valley Democrat-Gazette Newsletters 🎄Community Christmas Card NWA Screening Sites NWA Vaccine Information Virus Interactive Map Coronavirus FAQ Crime Razorback Sports Today's Photos Puzzles

OPINION | LET'S TALK: Is the bot revolution upon us?

by Helaine Williams | September 19, 2021 at 2:10 a.m.

No, I'm not ready for "sentient Disney robots" either.

Now as a fan of science fiction, I admit to being fascinated with TV shows and movies that feature robots — the "robuts" depicted in old "Twilight Zone" episodes (people in the TZ Facebook fan pages I follow love making fun of the way "robot" is pronounced in those episodes); "I, Robot," the 2004 movie with Will Smith; the "Terminator," "Transformers," "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" film franchises — and yes (gulp) the original "Westworld," the 1973, robots-gone-wild movie starring eternal hottie Yul Brynner.

But gawking at robots on a screen is one thing. A robot walking around a theme park, stopping to greet me, ask what kind of day I'm having, compliment me on my shoes, offer me a drink — or just hop around saying "I am Groot!" over and over, is another.

It was the headline of an Aug. 19 New York Times story that asked readers, "Are You Ready for Sentient Disney Robots?"

A story by Hilary Hanson in Huffpost's Weird News section, dated the same day, noted that the headline had gone viral and went on to say that, "based on Twitter, the answer so far seems to be 'Absolutely not.'"

"The Walt Disney Co. is in the process of developing hyper-realistic, free-roaming robot versions of beloved characters to populate the grounds of its parks," goes the Huffpost feature. "Labeling them 'sentient' may be jumping the gun a little bit, as the idea of robot sentience is, to put it mildly, complicated. But the creations are slated to have 'cameras and sensors' that let them 'make on-the-fly choices about what to do and say.'"

The reporter of the Times story, Brooks Barnes, began it by sharing a first-person experience meeting a 3-foot-tall depiction of Groot, the treelike, three-word-vocabulary-spouting character that bit the dust as an adult and was resurrected as a baby in the "Guardians of the Galaxy" movies. The thing even reacted to Barnes' silence upon their first meeting, getting all sad, then perking up when receiving a response.

"But while Disney executives see the bots as a way to intrigue younger generations and 'stay relevant,' some people were more apt to see them as abjectly terrifying," continues the Huffpost article. "On Twitter, a lot of jokes were made about 'Westworld,' the HBO series (based on the 1973 Michael Crichton movie) about a 'Wild West' theme park filled with androids that are impossible to distinguish from human beings ... Some also referenced 'The Simpsons' episode 'Itchy and Scratchy Land,' which involves a robot uprising at a theme park."

Hanson's article ends with a show of those Twitter responses:

"Y'all know 'Westworld' isn't a how-to guide, right?"

"Mickey Mouse, pointing a revolver at a group of guests: 'Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?'"

"To quote from a famous movie ['Jurassic Park'] where this idea did not go sideways at all: 'Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should.'"

Another person Tweet- quipped that if you fight one of the wandering Disney robots and win, "you get one free FastPass" (a reference to the former Disney pass that enabled visitors to skip long lines).

I'm spooked not just by the idea of robots who may or may not start out friendly before wanting to kick our butts. I'm blipped out by, as depicted in "Terminator," the thought of a fancy-schmancy artificial intelligence system that decides it needs to take over the world, and builds robots that are able to kick our butts. And yes, those occasional real-life reports that showcase creepily realistic Japanese robots don't help.

Bothering all of us reluctant robot embracers deep down is this: What if the machines we create to imitate humans as closely as possible imitate humans all too perfectly — by taking on our worst qualities?

I mean, heck, most of us occasionally cuss out regular, everyday machines for acting as though they had minds of their own.

Take the self-checkout machines at Kroger, for instance — the machines that repeat Romper Room-level instructions at us relentlessly as though they are convinced that we are idiots and pause operations altogether if we fail to "please place the item in the bag." The thought of these machines being parlayed into human-looking (or heck, R2D2-looking) "robuts," still determined to treat us as though we had nary a brain in our heads, is disconcerting. So is the thought of a realistic robot/android that forgets or doesn't know it's a machine — and either falls in love and starts stalking us, or bops the live checker at the grocery store because it believes that it, not the human, should be able to determine whether we're old enough to buy wine.

So yeah, count me as among those who might want to avoid the Disney parks if those little stationary anamatronic characters in the "It's a Small World After All" ride are redesigned to come up in my face and serenade me as I'm standing around deciding where to eat. (Or if Groot looks sad because I didn't react to him. Shoooooot, Groot may get hacked off and add to his vocabulary.)

Then again, maybe if these creations were fashioned to look like unarmed Yul Brynners ...

"I, email": [email protected]


Sponsor Content