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• Future Fantastic

Future Fantastic is a short television series hosted by Gillian Anderson (of X-Files fame) produced by the BBC and TLC in 1996. The series aims to show where the future may take us by comparing “predictions” from science fiction with real technological developments.  Its second episode focuses on robotics, and spends much of its 22 minutes on Asimov’s laws and clips from old movies like Metropolis.  A few recognizable scientists give their two cents on the future of robotics, including Red Whittaker and Hans Moravec.

Rodney Brooks even admits that his humanoid COG was inspired by HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, though Arthur C. Clarke concedes an artificial intelligence of that caliber probably won’t be possible until the year 2101.  Sadly Clarke passed away in 2008, so he never got to see IBM’s Watson defeat human champions in a round of Jeopardy!.  IBM has announced a new round of funding from DARPA for their cognitive computer project “SyNAPSE” as recently as this August (see press release).

There’s some footage of the Spring Turkey developed at MIT’s Leg Lab, which was considered the most life-like bipedal robot developed at that time, but Cog is the star of the episode’s segment on humanoids.  Despite being billed as an evolving robot that would continue to learn for years to come, it has been retired.  Honda’s humanoid robot P2 and the many others developed in Japan soon after largely stole his thunder (the P2 was unveiled in late 1996, well after this show had been filmed and edited, so it isn’t included).  The segment doesn’t touch on Japanese robots, which could have included various examples from Waseda University.

Of course, the episode wouldn’t be complete without trotting out the old doomsday scenario (straight out of Terminator 2: Judgment Day).  Thankfully soundbites from Brooks and Asimov keep things level headed.  If this episode of Future Fantastic is any indication, it’s not a particularly good series.  It’s the victim of bad timing (just before the humanoid robot boom), so there are much better documentaries about robots out there, with much more content.  I’m sure you can find ones devoted specifically to Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke if that’s what you’re after.  If you’re interested, you can view the episode on YouTube beginning with part 1 here.

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