Robots: The Image and The Reality

A big movie fan, our Guest Blogger Candice Leigh Helfand is a recent graduate of Rutgers University, with a degree in journalism & Media Studies.

In addition to writing for American Inventor Spot, she also writes for the website of the Contemporary A cappella Society of America. In her free time, Candice enjoy singing, performing in community theater and writing on her blog (

Here's her article for readers of

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Cartoons and movies have depicted robots as a facet of modern life since the 1950's. Even today, robots are a common plot device in motion pictures. Often times, the robot is included as either an enemy or a friend to humans, with a set of motivations and opinions that one sees normally in humans.

Short CircuitShort Circuit Throughout the years, robots have been shown as interactive, emotional characters with specific agendas, other than their programmed or originally intended functions. Rosie (the robotic housekeeper from "The Jetsons"), Johnny 5 (the rebellious, fast reading robot from the "Short Circuit" films), and David (the robotic depiction of a modern-day Pinocchio story from "Artificial Intelligence: AI") are some of the better-known examples.

But how much truth is there to the way Hollywood depicts them?

Not much, actually.

The truth of the matter is, while robots do currently exist that have speech and response capabilities, all of these facets are programmed, and the robots are, as a result, not truly capable of original thought or motivation. This is not to say that scientists have not been working on enabling robots to essentially think and feel independently, but at this point in time, it is not a reality.

Among the closest attempts to give credence to the concept of a thinking robot, is a gizmo known as Ripley, made by the Cognitive Machines Group. Ripley is designed to think about his actions, and to reply to conversational stimuli not by being given an endless database of words and phrases, but rather by being programmed with "an underlying meaning of communications", as a poster named "Steve" described it.

Generally, when a robot attempts to reply to stimuli using a programmed vocabulary, his (or her, just to be safe) responses are often clumsy, choppy, and not at all natural. This is because while robots can be programmed to understand sentence structuring and grammatical rules, there is more to speech and conversation than that.

Ripley RobotRipley RobotAn NPR article, "The Inner World of Ripley the Robot" by Jon Hamilton, talks more about Ripley the wonder-bot. In his article, he cites a quote from Deb Roy, a researcher at MIT; "Language is inherently a social activity... It's far more than just a vocabulary and a grammar. That's just the surface stuff." Ripley also has the capability recognize colors, objects, and locations in front of him, due to his ability to comprehend his surroundings, and to communicate them and learn them the way a human child would. Ripley learns by seeing something, and internalizing what he sees and the words he is taught to associate with it.

(Read rest of article here. )

Jul 25, 2006
by Anonymous (not verified)

Actually robots do reply.

Actually robots do reply. there are some medical robots in the hosptilas, that interact wtih surroundings. But do robots need emotions? I am not sure

Aug 2, 2006
by Anonymous (not verified)

Sure, robots need emotions

How else are they going to be able to tell humans that they are starting to get on their nerves or are pushing them too hard?