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Short Circuit (1986): Johnny 5 is still alive!

What it gets right about robots: Physical robot design, the difficulties of following natural language directions

Recommendation: Gather the kids and their friends, make a LOT of popcorn, and enjoy!

The book, if not the movie, Ready Player One made the 80’s cool, so Short Circuit-- possibly the best-loved robot movie of the 80’s-- should be doubly cool, right? Uh, maybe… But surprisingly, Short Circuit holds up well. If we dispense with the “robot is hit by lightning and comes alive” deus ex machina, Short Circuit actually touches on two relevant aspects of robotics: the physical design of the robot and the difficulties of natural language instructions.

In case you’ve never seen Short Circuit (unlikely) or have forgotten it (totally reasonable, it wasn’t a life-changing sci-fi classic like 2001: A Space Odyssey), the plot goes something like this. The Nova Corporation (because naming companies and planets “Nova” is as ubiquitous in sci-fi movies as “Acme” is in the Roadrunner cartoons) has produced a set of five weaponized, vaguely humanoid robot prototypes for the US military. (Note this is 1986 and the movie is introducing the ethics of weaponized robots. In a family film, not an ethical dilemma movie such as the 2015 Eye in the Sky. The recent furor from Elon Musk and Steven Hawking is actually a little late in the game. Unless they got the idea from watching Short Circuit.) The robot creator, Steve Guttenberg, and his sidekick, Fisher Stevens in a I-am-a-white-guy-playing-a-brown-guy-OUCH role, are less than thrilled about their creations being used for warmongering. After a successful demonstration of killing enemy tanks and test crash dummies, the robots are transported to a reception where they will join their lesser robot brethren who are serving generals drinks and canapés. However, robot number 5 is struck by lightning on the loading dock and comes alive, shouting “Number 5 is alive!”

The newly alive Number 5 is a tabula rasa and wants nothing more in life than to learn everything, chirping “Input! Input!” with the same annoying frequency and shrillness as the Daleks crying out “Exterminate! Exterminate!” A series of intended to be amusing escapades brings him to the adorable Ally Sheedy who works all day to support her quasi-illegal animal rescue shelter. Before long, Ally Sheedy and Steve Guttenberg are well along their way to romance as they help Number 5, who has renamed himself Johnny 5, escape the evil clutches of both the Nova Corporation’s over-the-top chief of security and Ally’s abusive ex-boyfriend.

Along the way, Johnny 5 and Ally dance to Saturday Night Fever; given that Short Circuit was directed by John Badham who also directed Saturday Night Fever. This could be interpreted as self-promoting or as just being convenient to get permissions to use the footage. You will be shocked (no you won’t) to learn that the movie ends with Johnny 5 cleverly escaping.

The above plot summary gives little, as in approximately zero, hope that there is anything resembling scientific verisimilitude in the movie. But there is. Short Circuit has robots that looks like real robots do starting the 2000’s, especially the Vecna BEAR or Andros F6-A. Johnny 5 has tracks for legs, which is realistic. The eyes seem to be a stereo pair of cameras on a pan-tilt mount. The hands are beyond current commercial robots (see my review of The Automatic Detective for more about manipulation) but it uses a 3-fingered hand- which is more than a vice-jaw gripper but less complicated than a fully anthropomorphic hand- again, a reasonable design compromise. The arm linkages and joints look like linkages and joints.

Even better, the opening title sequence takes us through the manufacturing process of the S.A.I.N.T. robots, with parts being machined, circuit boards being populated with electronic components, and camera lenses screwed in. The equipment used in the manufacturing process is dated but the steps are basically correct. Unexpectedly, the intro for Short Circuit is much more realistic than the title sequence in HBO's Westworld and, even better if you were hoping to see this with your kids, there is no full frontal nudity.

Short Circuit is somewhat correct in exploiting ambiguities in natural language to create low comedy scenes. In his quest for knowledge, Johnny 5 tries to follow the cooking directions and being a literal-minded robot, many funny things happen. Funny- unless you are the one cleaning it up. See my review of Autonomous for a discussion of the challenges of natural language understanding. Those challenges apply here, but Autonomous is definitely not a candidate for a PG movie adaptation.

There is a set of questions that you can use a study guide for your kids in the written review that I want go through here.

Here are some questions that you might ask the kids about:

  • Compare the physical design to iRobot Warrior, iRobot packbot, Vecna BEAR, and Andros F6-A. Why do they use tracks versus legs?

  • Would Johnny 5 be able to convey emotions if it didn’t have those flapping “sun shade” eyebrows?

  • Why do people leave steps out in written directions? How do people learn those missing steps that everyone knows about?

  • What would you want a robot to learn from watching TV? How would a robot know what’s right and what not to learn?

  • (and if you want to go there) The movie talks about military uses but what are peaceful uses for a humanoid robot?

I recommend Short Circuit- it is a good bet for the kids and may bring back fond memories of your youth, though it won’t replace re-reading Ready Player One for a trip to the 1980’s.

- Robin

For a video review of 'Short Circuit', head over to the official RTSF YouTube channel or simply click below...

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