National Robotics Week
It’s National Robotics Week! Throughout the week of April 2 - April 10, 2022, kids and families around the U.S. are engaging in STEM-based events and activities to celebrate and appreciate the exciting things they can do with tech. In honor of this initiative, let’s take a fun little journey through TV and film to explore how robots have been portrayed in the media – and what that means for our relationship with tech in real life!
Robots. At one time they were a space age fantasy for the far away future. Sometimes they were great. Too busy to do housework? The Jetsons had it made with Rosey, the robot maid/housekeeper. Sometimes they were terrifying, like when HAL turned on its human companions in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Now that robots, robotics, and space age tech are actually here, is it all something to love or to fear? Something that works for us or against us? Or can we actually learn to work with it to make the world – and our experience in it – better?
Meet The Jetsons. Housework is tedious and never ending. No problem – robots are here to help! Rosey the robot maid and housekeeper can clean, use household appliances, and take care of the house while you’re away. She even does light caretaking of the kids. The Jetsons’ robot tirelessly works for us – and feels like a busy parent’s dream come true.
Any warm fuzzies we get when thinking about a helpful housemaid robot suddenly get a chill with HAL, the computer that attacks humans in 2001: A Space Odyssey. This dystopian sci-fi fantasy about our machines turning on us is a classic. And its warning message is still alive and well – perhaps even more so now than when the movie first came out - given our increased reliance on screens.
The Jetsons and 2001: A Space Odyssey both debuted quite a few years ago. And now, love it or hate it, tech is here. That said, we have the power to choose to make its influence on us less like HAL, and more like – well, not exactly like Rosey either. Let’s think about this a little differently with the help of WALL-E and EVE. These robots have feelings. They’re caring, empathetic, likable. Somehow they’re cute even though they’re machines. They’re almost human-like, and they’re heroes: they save us actual humans from our own failings. In the end, though humans had devolved into laziness, they do eventually join WALL-E and EVE to save themselves and the Earth. Hmm – okay, so WALL-E and EVE show us that robots can be more than just servants, but this vision isn’t so optimistic for us humans.
But here’s the kicker: In WALL-E, humans willingly let machines take over. Sure, parents probably know the feeling of “us vs. tech” as they struggle to manage the irresistible call of anything electronic. But what can we accomplish if we turn that on its head by working with tech – standing strong in our own strengths, but thoughtfully allowing tech to bring its strengths as well? Three more movies featuring robots suggest that the answer could be great things indeed.
First, there’s Baymax, the big, squishy, lovable robot who helps Hiro save the day in Big Hero 6. Baymax does some pretty complicated things: he’s a healer, a source of emotional comfort, and a great resource. And when he joins forces with a team of humans, they work together to successfully defeat an evil villain. Robots can be likable, helpful – and also partner with humans to solve problems.
Then in two recent movies, robots gone haywire pitch in to make a big difference. Eric and Deborahbot 5000 are defective robots who help a human family save the world from evil robot domination in The Mitchells vs. The Machines. And Ron is a faulty robot who works with his human friend Barney as they both learn lessons about friendship and acceptance in Ron’s Gone Wrong. In both of these movies, importantly, there are clear messages about making purposeful choices to not let tech take over our lives, as it did in WALL-E: There’s a place for tech, just as there’s a place for tech-less experiences. But, as it turns out in these movies, resolving the central plot conflict requires robots and humans to work together as a team.
Sure, this journey through robots in movies isn’t anywhere near comprehensive. But it does lay out a general path in our evolving relationship with robots, and tech in general. Tech sometimes leaves us in awe, other times in apprehension – it depends on what we decide to do with it. Sometimes it can feel like tech controls us – but we can decide to take charge of it. In fact, it’s when we use tech thoughtfully and purposefully in the right settings and circumstances, work with it rather than against it, and embrace what it can do for us, that we’ll really achieve great things.
Take this National Robotics Week to allow yourself and your kids to dream about what those great things could be. And if you feel inspired, try visiting the National Robotics Week website for ideas on how you just might make those dreams a reality.