Robots: Humanoid robots
What it gets right about robotics: nothing. But it is an example of the Substitution Myth, an important concept in robot design.
Recommended watching: Don’t bother. It’s not the so-bad-it’s-kind-of-fun-to-watch type of bad like Saturn 3 or Runaway, it’s just stupid bad.
Futureworld (1976) is the sequel to the iconic 1973 Westworld, where the Delios Corporation has rebuilt after the “unfortunate” events and doubled-down on expanding its robotic theme parks. (See my review of Westworld at www.roboticsthroughsciencefiction.com/Westworld) Sounds like Michael Crichton was engaging in a warm up for the 1993 Jurassic Park franchise, right? Except Crichton didn’t want to make Westworld into a franchise, and so the sequel went into turnaround and eventually exited with a B team. Not an auspicious origin story, but when the movie starts out with a corporate insider scene that almost seems to be a set up for the HBO Westworld series, there was a moment of hope. Alas, Futureworld quickly turns into everything one could fear in a sequel: Incoherent plot, slow pacing, cheap production values, and good actors phoning it in. To make matters worse, it is also everything one could fear in a robot movie: Evil scientists, corporate greed, gratuitous robot sex, a robot uprising, and cheesy special effects.
Of the many annoying and inconsistent aspects of the movie, one particularly pernicious assumption is the Substitution Myth. The Substitution Myth is the term used by cognitive scientists, especially by my favorites David Woods and Eric Hollnagel, to describe the pervasive (and wrong) assumption that a robot can seamlessly substitute for a human. I think of it as the “no free lunch principle,” that you can design a robot to replace a human for a particular task, but there is some cost- either there’s more maintenance, it changes the work flow, alters the group dynamics, etc. It’s like buying a car on a tight budget and forgetting that to factor in insurance and gas. In manufacturing, the sticker price cost plus hidden costs are often still economically viable. However, industrial organizations often underestimate or are unaware of these hidden costs and find the robots don’t meet their expectations or finances.
There are numerous examples of the Substitution Myth. Car manufacturers installed welding robots saying they would save on labor costs, but then had to hire (and train) as many people to handle programming and maintenance. The robots did save on manufacturing costs due to working faster with less errors and they did eliminate jobs where a high level of expensive benefits had been grandfathered in, but they didn’t reduce the number of people on the payroll. In applications such as disaster response, it is nonsensical to think of robots substituting for a responder or even for a canine; the robots add a different set of capabilities. Some of the capabilities, like imagery from an unmanned aerial system, may allow the responder to work from a safe distance from a hazmat spill or nuclear accident, but it didn’t replace the responder.
One of the many delightful things about Westworld was that it didn’t believe in the Substitution Myth. The movie showed the tremendous behind the scenes work needed to make sure the robots adapted to the humans’ role playing and to keep the robots functional. When the computer virus sweeps through the mission control computers, the robots revert to a less nuanced, more mechanical set of behaviors. Which is a bad thing if you are in Westworld and have attracted the attention on the Gunslinger robot.
Futureworld is a True Believer in the Substitution Myth. In the sequel, the Delos Corporation has replaced the people operating the mission control stations behind the scene with robots that look exactly people. Let’s ignore the paradox that in the original science narrative in Westworld that running one of the theme parks was beyond the capabilities of the individual robots and that’s why you had a mission control but now you had robots capable of running the park but you didn’t eliminate mission control. The humanoid robots operate the mission control stations the exactly the same way as humans by flipping switches, turning dials, pressing buttons, and so on. Classic Substitution Myth. Wouldn’t it have been more cost effective to just have the intelligent software in the robots’ heads directly control the mission control stations? Building a robot with two dexterous five-fingered hands to physically flip switches seems both expensive and overkill.
Remember the old architectural adage: form should follow function? Well, whatever function the mission control robots are performing, the form of the humanoid robots isn’t a good match. A basic War Games WOPR computer would be a better choice than a physically situated, expensive to build and maintain human doppelganger agent.
Sadly, the form of Futureworld follows the function of a sequel that exists solely to milk a few more dollars from the original. Perhaps robots can substitute for the people who come up with those ideas, the hidden costs predicted by the Substitution Myth would be worth the improvement in sci-fi entertainment.