January 04, 2017      

Passengers is the latest space adventure movie to hit theaters. It makes heavy use of robots and artificial intelligence to tell its story. While Passengers is set in the future, it shows us the robotics challenges that innovators and businesses face today.

For instance, the constant interplay between the human characters and robots sheds light on what needs to be accomplished for robots and AI to coexist with mankind in different settings.

Note: The following discussion contains some “spoilers” about Passengers‘ plot.

Business Takeaways:

  • The science fiction film Passengers shows several robotics challenges that companies need to address in areas such as multi-agent robots and data collection and sharing.
  • A major challenge is in teaching robots concepts that humans easily understand, like trust. If robots do not understand what trust is, how can humans feel comfortable or safe around them?
  • There has been little discussion so far of how to track progress of robots operating in settings they were not designed for, such as aerial surveillance drones equipped with arms and being applied to harvest fruits and vegetables.

Here are five of these challenges:

Multi-agent robots

The main story in Passengers is that something has happened to the starship Avalon, causing all kinds of strange things to take place onboard. One of these unexplained occurrences is the constant breakdown of robots around the main human characters, including robots slamming into walls or running off ledges.

Because something has happened to the colonization vessel, part of the interstellar ship’s system is offline. This is causing other systems to “pick up the load” and is in turn causing robots around the ship to malfunction.

This is the first of the robotics challenges relevant to real life. Should robots working together be connected to a central system, or should they operate with preset data and instructions? How do you ensure that robots, be it aerial drones, industrial arms, or logistics robots, can work together if the main software connecting them is failing?

Limited human connection

As protagonists Jim Preston and Aurora Lane (played by Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, respectively) realize that they are the only people conscious on the Avalon, they interact with the only other human-looking entity on-board, a humanoid robot called Arthur (Michael Sheen).

While Arthur is intelligent, it becomes apparent that he cannot understand the “grayness” of human interaction. Arthur processes everything through a black-and-white filter, resulting in problems between the humans and robots.

Arthur isn’t the only robot featuring this problem. Near the beginning of the movie, when one of the main characters interacts with an AI system on the main floor of the ship, the system does not understand the gravity of what the human is saying, in terms of tone or word processing.

This is the second robotics challenge. Robots and artificial intelligence need to be designed and programmed in a way that enables a genuine human connection and allows the robot and AI to understand human language in all settings, not just expected or normal settings.

Data sharing and collection

Since there is something wrong with the ship, one of the strategies the humans adopt is to use the ship’s software to examine data on what is taking place in different compartments.

The ship is one giant robot with sensors everywhere, but they’re not sharing data properly, forcing the humans to physically inspect the ship.

This is the third robotics challenge. How do you ensure that data can be recorded, shared, and remain secure, even if the connection to share data is broken?

You may be thinking that if the connection is broken, nothing can be done, but this cannot be the approach for robots operating in settings where humans will not be present, like an autonomous vehicles exploring the deep ocean or outer space.

Objects in the Internet of Things need to be able to transfer and share data in all imaginable environments, even when the main connection is broken. Is AI, capable of reprogramming software and connections in real time, the solution?

Robotics challenges in many forms

Robotics challenges have been fodder for speculative fiction for decades. (Click here to enlarge.)

Trusting robots

The android Arthur plays an important role in the movie. In fact, one of the main events occurs because Arthur breaks a promise and reveals something.

Why Arthur does this isn’t explained, but it reflects an even bigger issue that robot manufacturers will face, especially those building robots that will work alongside humans or for humans, like robotic teachers or nurses.

How do you ensure that humans can trust robots if the robots themselves don’t understand what trust is?

This is the fourth robotics challenge. How do you teach a robot the concept of trust? This is an important question, considering the number of applications where humans and robots will be in proximity of each other or interact with each other.

Recently, an expert predicted that by 2050, robots will be marrying humans. And, there are countless articles that talk about sex robots and the changes this will bring to society. But if robots don’t understand trust, then who is to say whether a “married” robot will just get up and marry someone else one day?

Tracking progress on robotics challenges

How do you track robot progress when robots begin operating in settings they weren’t designed for?

By the end of the movie, you’ll see robots operating in ways that are different from what they are intended for because the space ship has changed.

This is the fifth robotics challenge. Imagine that drones equipped with arms that were designed for aerial surveillance are now being used to pick fruits and vegetables. How do your measure their functions?

This is a gray area, considering robots are still being designed to execute just one or two tasks or to operate in a specific environment. But, as robots become more intelligent and can be used in virtually any environment, the question becomes: How do you track how well they are doing?

More on Robotics Challenges and HMI:

Understand both function and behavior

What does the future of robots look like? The answer has two parts.

In Passengers, we get a glimpse of what the robots look like, how they function, etc. But there are gaps in our understanding of such complex machines would operate in different situations.

There is a whole subgenre of speculative fiction about how robots and AI could threaten humanity, but the question is more one about unforeseen consequences than malicious intent.

Passengers shows these gaps in a novel way and puts them in front of the audience. The question is, will roboticists recognize these gaps as relevant or ignore them as more fantasy than reality?