Director's Statement: Rodney's Robot Revolution
Written by Andrea Ulbrick
In 2003, I was in Boston, one day prior to recording a television interview for a documentary series with Australian born expatriate, Professor Rodney Brooks - the curious and enigmatic robot scientist, then based at the world famous research institute MIT. After scouting his office to ensure that I not only knew how to get the crew there the following day, I stumbled across a copy of a non-fiction book Brooks had written a few years earlier.
Entitled Flesh and Machine, it documented his extraordinary lifelong obsession with building machines that could think. Or at least, building "creatures" that possessed the appearance of being able to think. Within days, I had read his book from cover to cover, mesmerised by the ambition of a pure mathematician-slash-engineer to master the art of designing machines, which could somehow replicate certain human capabilities. Here was a genuine independent mind that also, importantly, had a sense of humour. Even more fascinating, was the inherent controversy, which his work seems to provoke. He told me that visitors to his lab often remarked, "What do you mean? You can make a machine like a human? That canít be possible?" Clearly, the idea made people not only sceptical but also distinctly uncomfortable. Brooks said it caused people to believe that the distance between man and machine was collapsing.
Andrea Ulbrick has been working in television, film and radio for eighteen years with a career highlight as a foreign correspondent covering the decline and fall of President Soeharto in Jakarta in 1996-1998. Now, an independent TV producer and director, Andrea specializes in science and history documentary genres.
I began to wonder. Was this then a key role of science? Did science have the ability to challenge people to question their nature of their role in the universe? If the work of robot scientists could provoke this kind of emotional response in people, then I knew I was onto a rich documentary which not only had a charismatic scientist at the heart of the story, I was targeting a topic which had the opportunity of enriching a much needed scientific debate. Especially, if some of us are willing to consider Brooks main theory, that it is only a matter of time before we can build robots that have enough higher level functions to be considered proper companions to humankind.Will robots be working alongside humans in the future?
The problem was, how to make a documentary, which had enough material to form a coherent narrative spine. It would take me four years of constant contact and visits to MIT to be familiar enough with Brooks ambition and work to recognise the much-needed chronological story when it arrived. This would give us the opportunity of telling some of the colourful history and culture of robot kind.
In 2004, while returning from Canada to Sydney via New York City, I took a side trip to MIT and Brooks was brimming with enthusiasm for a new theory. He had decided that the time was right to begin working on a prototype robot companion, one which had enough functions to be able to work safely and effectively alongside humans, firstly in the automotive industry and then elsewhere as prototypes were improved.
I asked did he think this was a revolution? He seemed to think if he was successful, this robot could be working in various industries within the next fifteen years. And Brooks agreed we could be there to film the start of the project, follow his journey come what may, and be there for the final launch. For us, it was a perfect opportunity and led to the project being green lit.MIT's cutting edge, CSAIL lab
I immediately emailed my producer, Chris Hilton, and asked that if Brooks was proposing a robot evolution, then a revolution might be possible. We knew that just ten years ago, no one outside the Pentagon or those with advanced computer literacy knew what the worldwide web was. Now the web has utterly transformed our lives, from banking to retail, communication and travel. Was it possible then, that just as suddenly as the digital revolution swung into gear, smart humanoids in the office, the home and the battlefield might take hold within our lifetime?
Ethically, I knew Robot Revolution would open up a can of worms as we quizzed robot makers, commentators and critics as they grappled with the moral implications of an intended Robot Revolution. Witnessing the progress of Brooks robot project opened up more questions than we could answer and in time, there will be more issues for all of us to consider. I hope I am there for the next stage of this incredible unpredictable robot evolution.