The plot of sci-fi blockbuster Interstellar focuses primarily on space exploration, black holes, and time travel, so it isn’t surprising that a lot has already been written on the movie’s portrayal of science—there’s even a book out already on the topic. What’s been discussed less is Interstellar’s portrayal of artificial intelligence and robotics, probably because the movie’s robots work so well that they never run amok and steal the show. Beyond bucking sci-fi stereotypes, though, Interstellar’s portrayal of AI illuminates several features of what our future with robots should (and shouldn’t) look like. (Warning: There are spoilers galore in the rest of this post.)
TARS, the main robot featured in Interstellar, looks nothing like a human. It also looks nothing like most robots in existence today. Sci-fi movies typically imagine robots that, like the iconic C-3PO, look roughly human-like (e.g. having two legs, two arms, and a face-ish thing up top, even if it is clearly not a human face).TARS, in contrast, doesn’t really have legs or arms or any other recognizable telltales of a biological organism. It reflects a different approach to the development of robots, more common among real-life roboticists than those apparently working in most science fiction universes, that puts function above humanness in the design of technology. True, some humanoid robots are currently in development, but favoring function over a familiar face may actually be in the interest of humanity. TARS’s last-minute rescue of Dr. Brand would have been impossible with a humanoid design, for example.
At the same time, TARS is no toaster. It speaks in fluent (if sometimes awkward) English and makes valuable contributions to the mission on a regular basis. In this regard, TARS is a model for a system that is user-friendly (combining fluid natural dialogue with common sense) while not seeking to re-create the physical and cognitive limitations of humans. It is commonplace these days for commentators (particularly those in the tech sector) to argue that technology complements rather than replaces human skills, but TARS shows how this is a false dichotomy. In order for it to do an adequate job of assisting humans, TARS needs certain humanlike functionalities, such as the ability to speak and understand language, but it needn’t be precisely made in man’s own image, either. An army of TARSes, even if not designed to replace or imitate humans, would have enormous practical applications.