Could the Technology of Chappie Be in Our Future? Let Scientist Wolfgang Fink Explain


By: Haylee Fisher (@haylee_fisher)

Chappie is the self-aware robot at the center of Neill Blomkamp’s new movie of the same name. In it, crime is patrolled by an oppressive and artificially intelligent robotics police force. One of them, Chappie, gets stolen and reprogrammed to become sentient. He then must learn how to navigate the world between those that are kind and those who want to destroy him.

While it is set in present day Johannesburg, the robots portrayed in the movie do not actually exist. But could they? I was able to speak to Dr. Wolfgang Fink, a physicist at Caltech and the University of Arizona who did not consult on the film. However, his expertise sheds some light on what’s possible in the future in the world of robotics.

What advances have been made in robotics that people may not be aware of?

So I would answer that question in a variety of ways. First of all, there are developments in robots in many different environments. Flying, walking, driving, jumping, diving, swimming robots, things like that. So for water, air, ground, for all of these environments, you will have robots these days. So as far as what we see in Chappie for example, it’s not new either in the sense that we have that already in a way. Not necessarily the agility, but the ideal robot is being used. So there’s a whole lot going on.

Now related to that, I also would like the mention there’s [a lot of advances] made in prosthetics. Prosthetics, in a way, are also part of the robotics field. So for limb replacements, things like that. Artificial vision implants [are something] I have been working on as well. So there’s a lot that is being done. At the same time, you also need to look into outer space. Spacecraft, for the most part, are robots as well because they have to function on other planets – like the rover – and they have to do things. They have to drill, they have to examine, take samples, take other measurements, move about and so forth. I should also mention the complete picture and all the people that work in the micro and Nano robotics areas where they look into implantable robots that can maybe repair things inside your body as well. So robotics comes in all sizes and all kinds of environments these days.

So it’s a broader field than people may think?

Yes, that’s what I want to stress. It doesn’t have to look like Chappie. That’s sort of a classical look for a humanoid robot, but it doesn’t have to be like [him.] It can come in many different ways. From a vacuum cleaner all the way to a surgical robot. For example, there’s a da Vinci system where a surgeon can be sitting in a different location and perform a surgery on you in another location. So I want to stress there’s a wide variety of robots and they present themselves in many different ways.

There are also many different levels in degrees of autonomy. So some robots are mere executers and those are like a puppet. You – a human – pull the string and the robot acts accordingly or you give them more and more autonomy so they can act on their own accord and their own behavior. That’s when you get into the world of autonomous behavior and that puts you smack in the middle of Chappie.

What do you see happening to the field 5, 10, even 15 years from now?

As far as the hardware is concerned, it will take its course. It will be what it will be so that’s not a big concern and that’s not where the exciting breakthrough will happen. The exciting breakthrough will happen in the software, which governs these robotic entities. So in other words, what level of autonomy or automation will be achieved? So by and large, people usually use autonomy in the context of high-level automation. That’s not the actual meaning of the word. You’re looking at systems that can think for themselves, can be sentient, and that can come up with their own reasoning and own decisions in the absence of a human being. The culmination of an autonomous system would be if it were to become self-aware. And that’s actually happening in the movie because at one point, Chappie states that, “I am Chappie.” That is an extremely profound statement because it’s recognizing many facets of self-awareness. So if I have an autonomous system that’s self-aware and situation-aware, it’s a sympathetic and reasoning system. So that by itself has not been attained yet because it also needs to be situation-aware. So just because you’re self-aware, you can still step off into the street without looking left and right and you can run over by a car. So that alone is not sufficient. So to be self-aware and situation-aware, that’s integration and makes a truly autonomous system. To wrap up the question, basically that’s where I see development going. To have software mechanisms which will instill into a robot the capability of learning and modifying itself and the way it thinks and Chappie nicely portrays that because it’s programmed to be a part [of something] through the environment and the people [around it] and it’s not like a child.

So you think something like Chappie could be possible in the future?

Yes. I think that’s something where you equip a system with the capability of learning and adapting and modifying itself as it goes.

Hugh Jackman’s character in Chappie sees robots as the end of mankind. He thinks that when a machine can think for itself, there will be no need for humans. Do you think robots will ever get to the point of ubiquity and perhaps even evolve to the capabilities of, say, HAL?

So that’s a loaded question! Let me try to shed some light into that. So what I would say is the following: so as long a humanity or humans can understand how a system came up with a certain decision it made – so according to a certain algorithm or something like that and there’s no unknowns – at that point, I do not believe it will be a danger. The real danger will come in as [stated by] Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk’s problems and concerns will be once you get a truly autonomous system, [and] where you can no longer understand how it came up with its actions and reasoning. So that’s where Hugh Jackman in this case in the movie would be correct that that’s when you have a truly autonomous system. That could, at some point, take actions which may not be favorable to humankind and that autonomous system will not have are morals and ethics. So in that sense they’re not governed by these things or bound by these values so therefore they may think you’re obsolete or do away with you. And then, of course, it depends on how heavily you equip those systems. If they just exist on your laptop and to do computer animation, then obviously that’s no danger, but weaponized systems that move, that’s a different story. Or it doesn’t even have to be a moving system. It can be a decision-making system that has access to other ones. So the basic distinction was to understand how it comes up with a decision, so in that case, I don’t really think that’s a danger, but the real danger comes in once you no longer understand how a system comes up with a decision and why it makes those decisions.

It seems there has been a recent rise in robotics-related movies and TV shows. How do you feel about the field’s portrayal in the media, most notably in recent movies like Chappie and Big Hero 6 and the TV show Almost Human?

First of all, there’s still a big portion of science fiction in there. However, especially in Chappie, it nicely portrays the dichotomy of what is actually known as artificial intelligence – which is a rule-based system – compared to a truly autonomous system. So in a way, it nicely portrays the different stakeholders that we currently have in the recent field. Many people think of AIs and that’s what we’re working on but truly autonomous systems are not based on the AIs. And that’s kind of nicely portrayed in the movie. At the same time, it also gives you sort of a glimpse at what is to come in certain areas. We will have the use of robotics in certain medical sciences, an assist robot, or of course the military has a huge interest in putting people out of harm’s way and replacing them with robotics systems instead. In thanks to these movies, I think you also create an awareness in the general public as to what the challenges are, not just on a technical level, but on the implications for humans and mankind. Because you see in many of these movies, sort of the actions of when something becomes oppressing or it becomes uncontrollable or it becomes a threat and that needs to be instilled in people as well to be aware of the potential of these things because many things we develop are multi-purpose and dual-use. The good and the bad.

So they need to know the risks involved.

Yeah, I think that people just need to be educated in general of what the risks are. That’s the number one thing. To not be blind against them.

What would you say to young people inspired by these films and who want to do what you do?

I would definitely give the notion that the methods should be that you embrace the STEM fields – so science, technology, engineering, and math. I know it’s not necessarily that popular, but I want to mention a very important aspect now. Every child nowadays grows up with smart phones and iPads and tablets and everything else, right? So in terms of user savviness, we have an increased level. However, we seem to see a decreased level of education to understand how these things are being programmed and what’s possible to do with [them] and that’s a trend which needs to be reversed, in my opinion. And thanks to movies like Chappie, the coolness factor is usually what draws children into certain fields. It all starts in elementary school where everyone is still excited about STEM, but then usually middle school is when you lose people and then by the time you hit high school, the damage is done and you’re no longer interested in STEM. So with movies like Chappie, you might be able to instill that excitement, that, “Oh, I want to do something like that,” and, “What do I need to do to get there?” Playing with robots in school already is a good first step and then hopefully keep that excitement. Because what’s happening as we get more and more technologically equipped, and society becomes more complex and we’re more governed by computing systems, we need people who are familiar with them. How they’re being programmed, not just how to use them. This movie shows a little bit of the scary aspect, which is important because it’s a scariness we have currently. I mean, if you want to paralyze a country, you eliminate the power source and then you cannot pump any fuel any more, you cannot get cash from the ATM machine. So in other words, you need a little bit of that edginess in these movies, not to cause apocalyptic scenarios, but to point in the direction a little bit to show people and make them aware of what’s possible and that they’re excited enough to try to understand the science and engineering behind it.

Is there anything else you would like to add that we might not have covered?

I have to apologize for the lengthy explanations! It’s very complex with a lot of moving parts. The only other aspect which is not necessarily the subject of this movie is the fact that when you have implants in the body – the prosthetics like I mentioned – limbs are one thing, but once you put implants into the brain, then you may be borderline crossing the delineation between what’s human and what’s robotics. At what point do you lose becoming human and become the robot?

Like Robocop?

For example, yes. So those are additional aspects that need to be considered. Chappie, of course, makes a very nice case as to how a robot system becomes self-aware and becomes truly autonomous.

Chappie is in theaters now.

    One Comment

  1. Nolan AndresonMarch 9th, 2015 at 7:00 am

    I haven’t seen Chappie yet but I bet that it is a decent movie. But, I read this entire page and I agree with Fink here. It may be cool to have robots and all, but anything can happen so we must know what we are doing before we do it. If we all don’t understand what robots truly are when we start making more, a lot can go wrong. Making robots may be risky, and cool, but I still think that the people behind the work should know what they’re doing before they release it. That’s why we have recalls. Recalls are more common in the car industry but if robots start mass-producing, and there is a bug, that could be a major safety problem for us, as humans.

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