People don't hate all robots, just creepy ones. We have proof of this thanks to the new and utterly adorable Disneyland Park robots that took a surprise test drive this week at the park's Galaxy's Edge Star Wars experience.
The BD-1 Explorer robots represent a few technological breakthroughs for the Disney Imagineering team and the world of robotics. First, they're almost entirely 3D printed but more importantly, before being built, they were trained in a simulation in just a few hours to walk on uneven terrain. Teaching any robot to walk in new environments usually takes months (or even years), especially when the terrain is unscripted and unknown to the robot.
In videos on TikTok and YouTube (see below), the Star Wars Droid-style robots can be seen walking among parkgoers and through a forest. They not only handle the unexpected with aplomb but look cute as a button doing so.
Notably, the design owes more to Disney's Wall-E than any biological entity. Disney is aiming for entertainment, not verisimilitude. This means the robot's interactions are exaggerated for comic effect and the engagement is real-time but cute and non-threatening.
Disney is not building robots for our homes. In fact, almost every innovation Disney builds is poured back into the business of entertaining people at its theme parks around the world. Plus, these robots are still motivated less by algorithms than they are pre-programmed animations. The secret sauce is that Disney is now combining those animation scripts with what Disney Imagineers described in videos as the robots' ability to "imitate artistic motion" to, in a limited way, react to and navigate new environments.
These robots are best at acting while using their advanced programming to navigate new environments. To demonstrate this, Disney created a video that shows how the robot handles being nudged (a comical stutter step) and how it stays upright as the rug is literally pulled out from under it.
A better bot way
There is, I think, something the rest of the robot-building world could learn from Disney Imagineers. No one recoils from these robots the way they might the humanoid Optimus robot from Elon Musk's Tesla.
Unveiled in 2021, Optimus robot walks haltingly into the uncanny valley, looking like what you'd get if you fed a man and a Tesla Cyber Truck into one The Fly chamber and pulled the terrifying result out of the chamber on the other side of the room.
Whenever I talk to people about robots in the home, they purse their lips and begin babbling about a robot uprising. They've watched too many movies where giant robots stiffly march out of spaceships and begin vaporizing cows and farmers. To make matters worse, modern roboticists seem hell-bent on building robots that look just like our nightmares.
Optimus Robot is the worst kind of example. Not only is it a faceless golem but it seems as if it's running on programming from 2005. Why are its movements so stiff and why does it look like it's one misstep away from tumbling face forward into your lap?
At least the only slightly less scary-looking Atlas robot from Boston Dynamics moves like a human acrobat. Sure, we're afraid of them but we also secretly wish they'd join our Olympic team.
Disney robots show a different way. They have the intelligence to manage an unforeseen environment but with an approachability that steers miles away from the uncanny valley.
This is not the first adorable and lifelike robot Disney's built. There's the child-like Groot that gets a pass because it looks more like an animated tree than a person, and what appears to be a rollerblading chipmunk.
We should not expect any of these robots to greet us outside a Disney theme park, but perhaps Elon Musk should pay one a visit. He might learn a thing or two about how Optimus Robot should really look and work.
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A 35-year industry veteran and award-winning journalist, Lance has covered technology since PCs were the size of suitcases and “on line” meant “waiting.” He’s a former Lifewire Editor-in-Chief, Mashable Editor-in-Chief, and, before that, Editor in Chief of PCMag.com and Senior Vice President of Content for Ziff Davis, Inc. He also wrote a popular, weekly tech column for Medium called The Upgrade.
Lance Ulanoff makes frequent appearances on national, international, and local news programs including Live with Kelly and Ryan, Fox News, Fox Business, the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNBC, CNN, and the BBC.