10 Family movies with robots you might have misseD (Podcast E20)


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Ah, long holiday weekends. Time for PG-13 (or lower) robot movies that you can put on and try to please everyone, from the grandparents, aunts and uncles, to the kiddos. The challenge is you can only watch Wall*E so many times. Short Circuit and I, Robot may be ones that the grandparents can’t handle again. Robots (2005) and Big Hero 6 are definitely more for the kids. Metropolis is very adult and the new Korean movie Space Sweepers is rated R (but it's not disturbing like Squid Games).


Here are 10 family movies that you may have missed or forgotten about, plus there’s a little bit of robotics science that might help spark the kids into a STEM career.


Finch. PG-13 Did you know that “That Movie about how after the end of the world, the one where Tom Hanks builds a robot to take care of his dog after he dies” finally was released? Everyone loves Tom Hanks. Everyone loves dogs. You like robots. What could go wrong with this for a family movie? Well, the movie is … boring. Be prepared for the parents to snore and the kids squirm until they are banished from the couch while you watch this as you clean up the detritus of holiday dinner. But if someone is still awake, you can talk about robot design and learning with them- see the topics page.


The Iron Giant. PG It's the animated cult classic of a boy who finds an alien robot. The robot may or may not be predisposed to blow up the world After all, it was written during the Cold War by Ted Hughes- Mr. Sylvia Plath to literary types- and the assumption was that we could blow ourselves up on our own, thank you very much. It was Brad Bird’s first movie– Brad Bird is the person who would go on and give us The Incredibles and Ratatouille. you can talk about robot ethics- especially whether a robot would be pre-programmed with ethics (deontology), learn ethics by observing others (virtue ethics), or brute force reasons about consequences (consequentialism)- see more about ethics in my book Learn AI and Human-Robot Interaction Through Asimov’s I, Robot Stories.


Westworld 1973 PG. The movie which started the franchise is a family-friendly movie, very different from the HBO series. (Yeah, the PG rating is a spoiler alert as to just how different they are.) Despite its age, it is remarkably accurate as to how robots work and the intense behind-the-scenes effort it takes to keep them running. Yul Brenner is iconic as The Man in Black. See the detailed review for more about how it really reflects robotics, including computer vision.


Robot and Frank (PG-13). The grown kids, James DeFranco and Liv Tyler, give dad, Frank Langella, a robot to help him as he struggles with dementia. The family relationship is strained because Dad has spent a lot of their life in jail for jewelry thefts. Peter Skarsgaard is the voice of the sincere, but naïve, robot who unwittingly helps Langella with one last heist and help him court Susan Sarandon. The robot is a bit more advanced than real robots- but not by much. The movie may not hold the young one’s attention but the rest of the family should like it. And if you don’t want to talk about aging, you can talk about human-robot interaction- which you can learn more about fronm my book Learn AI and Human-Robot Interaction Through Asimov’s I, Robot Stories.


Real Steel (PG-13). Rock’em Sock’em robots with Hugh Jackman as the once famous robot operator who is reconnecting with his estranged son for a Rocky-like underdog shot at the title with Atom, the outdated robot. Along the way he begins to stop taking Evangeline Lily for granted. Yeah, the plot is pretty predictable but the actors spruce it up and the robots are great, so this is very watchable. Plus it’s actually fairly accurate on telepresence and portions of the control are delegated to the robot in a shared autonomy paradigm. You can learn more about telepresence and shared autonomy from my books.


Bicentennial Man (PG). The late, great Robin Williams as a robot! Isn’t that enough? A reasonable, but pedestrian, adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s classic story of the same name. A robot who works for a nice family yearns to become a real person (and family member), taking 200 years to make the transition. Like Finch, this is unlikely to engage younger kids. But what the heck, grab a box of tissues, maybe a couple of boxes. And this is a good springboard to discuss robot design, also called morphology- why do we want robots to be shaped like humans?- and ethics. Both are topics on the web page and covered in Learn AI and Human-Robot Interaction Through Asimov’s I, Robot Stories.


The Day The Earth Stood Sill 1951 (NR) This, the original, version is number 5 on the American Film Institute top 10 sci fi movies . It’s the movie that gave us the trope of saucer like space ships landing on the White House lawn and one of The Best Robots Ever: Gort. The movie is like a time capsule of the 1950’s with many of those Mad Men moments of “oops, we used to do that.” But the main plot of the US bobbling the world’s admission in the galactic United Nations is pretty compelling. The whole household will be saying "Klaatu barada nikto" (yes, Bruce Campbell got it from here).

And the big reveal at the end where scary Gort is a good robot is worthy of many family discussions: would fully autonomous robots really make good police? Some roboticists, like Ron Arkin, argue that robotics would be better because they are unemotional; others like Noel Sharkey argue that robots would be worse because they would have limited intelligence and brittle. You can check out ethics and lethal autonomous weapons on the topics section of the web page and my book Robotics Through Science Fiction.


*batteries not included (PG) This is a Spielberg movie– AI: Artificial Intelligence isn’t his only robot movie. The movie has so many attractive elements: The robots are alien robots! They fly! They have robot babies! Yes, a movie about the cutest alien unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) with teensy weensy end effectors EVER. Of course, to be fair, this may be the ONLY movie staring an alien UAV family. And you can always learn more about UAVs and end effectors, better known as manipulators, at the RTSF topics webpage.


The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (PG) Purists complained incessantly about this movie when it came out, even though Douglas Adams approved it and liked it. Whatever. My kids loved it and kept singing the Book of Mormon style musical opening number “So Long and Thanks for All the Fish” for weeks after the movie. The star is Alan Rickman as Marvin, the most delightfully depressed robot in the galaxy. OK, Marvin is not the lead. It’s actually Martin Freeman before Sherlock and The Hobbit fame. With Sam Rockwell and Zoe Dechanel before they became household names. Indeed, probably Mos Def as Ford Prefect was probably the best known back in 2005. Lots of fun! So can robots be depressed? Maybe but robots are being developed to help people with their depression so fair is fair.


Dante’s Peak (PG-13) Pierce Brosnan as a vulcanologist? Hmmm, maybe, maybe not. Linda Hamilton as a single mom and mayor of a town build next to a dormant volcano? OK. But Pierce Brosnan and a crew of extras from central casting for The Big Bang Theory who are using a large robot to enter the decidedly not dormant volcano? You better believe it! Brosnan gets the action-adventure going while saving Linda’s brood of kiddos and her acid-tongue monster-in-law from lots and lots of lava. The robot- Spider Legs- is very similar to CMU’s Dante robot which went down a volcano in Antarctica. Good family movie, unless you feel it is too pointed about domineering mother-in-laws. See the full review and discussion of Dante’s Peak and more about Dante the robot here.