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WALL-E: A lowly trash compactor robot has a lofty physical morphology

Recommendation: Forget the G rating- watch it to appreciate WALL-E’s design while letting the engaging story help you overcome another week of what the poet Richard Cole “small, impossible ledgers recording hope against subtraction and finally closed with a sigh.”

Pixar’s 2008 WALL-E won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film of the Year for its multi-faceted story of a trash compacting robot who finds love amid the excesses of rampant consumerism. WALL-E was a striking departure from the standard humanoid robots (Metropolis, Forbidden Planet, Iron Giant, Terminator, Transformers), instead offering up a robot that looked like a logical extension of the bomb squad robots in The Hurt Locker, which came out in the same year. More cinematically surprising, WALL-E didn’t talk or have any living thing beyond a cockroach to interact with for the first half of the movie. But it worked. A day in WALL-E’s life was a reaffirmation of all the little, delightful possession that make up our lives but also a reminder that having other people, rather than things, is more important.

The movie probably should have won an award from roboticists for its realistic robot morphology (physical design). Any robot can be thought of as consisting of five subsystems: sensors (we have 5 senses), effectors (legs, arms, neck, anything that moves), control (our brain and spinal cord, the robot’s computer and electronics), power, and communication. WALL-E isn’t the least bit humanoid, except for the stereo cameras creating a face- even if the animators hadn’t made his sensor payload face-like, studies suggest that people will always mentally think of some place on a robot as the “face” and orient to that. WALL-E has inexpensive and simple treads, rather than legs with complex, hard to replace mechanical linkages. The two effectors (arms) are also more like existing arms. His computer control isn’t really explored, but it would be considerable to coordinate WALL-E’s movements. I spoke with a Disney engineer in charge of building a WALL-E replica for Disneyworld and he said that when his team watched the movie they counted over 100 degrees of freedom (ways that the robot could move); too many to practically build at this time. WALL-E uses solar energy to recharge his batteries, a bit unrealistic given the energy value of solar versus the horsepower demands of moving around. (See for a great explanation.) WALL-E didn’t need much in the way of communication, at least not before Eve arrived, which, again, is realistic given that the robot was just a trash collector.

WALL-E is a must see, one of Pixar’s top covert movies posing as a kid’s film. If you haven’t seen it, 2018 is the 10th anniversary so make it a special occasion!

- Robin

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