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Top 5 Scary (and Most Informative) Robot Movies

How about a scary scifi robot movie for Halloween? Here are 5 movies you may have missed that offer chills-- and teachable STEM moments in:

  • The Uncanny Valley

  • Physical human-robot interaction

  • Relentless Automation

  • The Turing Test

  • Behavior-based programming

Here's the countdown, drumroll please!

#5 Saturn 3 (1980)

Did you know Harvey Keitel made a robot movie? With Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett? Yeah... they probably all would prefer you didn't... It’s a “it’s never a good idea to download your mind into a robot” movie. Harvey’s a wacko (a stretch role for him) and like every male during the 80’s, his astronaut is obsessed with Farrah Fawcett. Even better, he downloads his mind into Hector the robot. Hector is the walking, talking, screeching embodiment of the Uncanny Valley- it has a humanoid body but its head is a camera mounted on one of those Luxo Task lamps- so it like they put the Pixar Luxo Jr. on top of a real robot. This mismatch is so uncanny, it’s almost nauseating. But no matter how much you loath Hector, you begin to root for it as it avoids Farrah’s embarrassingly obvious ambush traps and wish it’d just finish off Farrah and be done with it. A so-bad-it’s-good to heckle, Mystery Science Theater 3000 style!

#4 I Am Mother

This is the Hilary Swank, Rose Byrne robot movie that came out on Netflix. Rose Byrne is the voice of a robot named Mother who is raising a single baby named Daughter (go figure). Daughter is one out of thousands of embryos that appears to be stored after some sort of cataclysm. The teenage Daughter is buying into all of the "Robots are here to love you" pablum until a battered, paranoid-but-that-doesn’t-mean -they’re-not-coming -to-get-you Hilary Swank shows up. It’s like the verse from the Dire Straits song Industrial Disease: two men say they’re Jesus, one of them must wrong…And it’s a great study of physical human-robot interaction as Mother has to physically handle and nurture Daughter as a baby. While not a life-changing-OMG-it’s-so-good movie, it’s fine and worth watching

#3 Westworld, the 1973 movie

Westworld, the 1973 movie, is terrific- one of Michael Crichton’s first big hits before Jurassic Park. And what makes it so terrifying is Yul Brenner’s robot Gunslinger, the original Man in Black. The Gunslinger is intelligent, but mindless, automation that once a computer virus knocks out the software safeguards and suffocates all the employees working in the background to monitor the robots, it just keeps on trying to kill everyone. Except now it really can! The last man standing is nebbishy Richard Benjamin who figures out that the Gunslinger isn’t really an artificial general intelligence, just an automaton that tracks body heat and sounds. The movie is really accurate in a lot of ways- how a robot would sense, how it would react, and also how many people it would take to monitor and maintain such sophisticated robots.

Well worth watching- it holds up well and it is fun to compare with the first couple of seasons of HBO's Westworld .

#2 Ex Machina

When this first came out, my husband turned to me and said, “well this is going to set back your field a decade or so." Sure, a humanoid robot that passes the Turing Test so well that it can lie and manipulate with the best of us is scary! But the scariest part to me isn’t the robot, Ava, but the two human characters: Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson who pretty much represent Silicon Valley bro culture. Isaac plays a totally amoral tech genius Nathan Bateman with unbridled hubris (I can barely stand Dameron Poe in the Star Wars series because Isaac played him so well). Gleeson plays the everyman programmer who naively believes all the hooey about the goal of Nathan's company is to make the world a better place (as opposed to making the owners and investors filthy rich and powerful). And what’s nice is that Ava thinks they’re both creeps too. If you haven't seen it, you should- it's really, really good movie that will have you on your seat.

#1 War of the Corophages (X-Files)

OK, this isn’t a movie but an episode of the X-Files- season 3, episode 12 to be exact, but it will have you in the arms of whoever you sitting next to trying not to scream at alien robot cockroaches! Then it will have you laughing over Mulder’s infatuation with an entomologist and what Scully does at home at night (drink wine and clean her firearms). Plus it is so technically accurate, I have had students watch the episode then discuss the episode- what are the behavioral robotics principles illustrated, who are the real life roboticists the characters are based on, etc.- for their PhD qualifying exams. Totally PG-13. A wonderful, fun scream fest and amazingly accurate!

So that’s my top 5 recommendations- scary but also teachable moments about real robots. More detailed discussions of each movie and the real science are on the website so check it out. And while you’re here, you can buy the book Robotics Through Science Fiction: AI Explained Through Six Classic Robot Stories or any of the other books.

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