5 Big Questions About the Science of ‘Star Wars’


R2D2 & C3PO models. Credit Marc Lagneau/flickr CC BY ND 2.0

Even though C-3PO and R2-D2 lived (in a galaxy) a long time ago, today’s roboticists still haven’t found a way to create their current-day cousins. The College of Computing’s Sonia Chernova is one of many on campus trying to bring robots out of the lab and into the world so that people can have their own droids. She says:

“Robots tend to be on one extreme or the other these days. One kind is found on Mars, battlefields, and in operating rooms. These robots are extensions of humans—they’re rarely autonomous because a human is always in the loop.

“Others are autonomous. We see this mostly on manufacturing floors, where machines are programmed to do the same repetitive task with extreme precision. Not only are they limited by what they can do, but they’re also often separated from people for safety reasons.

“I’m focused on something in the middle. Full autonomy for personal robots would be great, but it’s not yet practical given today’s technology. Humans are too unpredictable and environments are ever changing. Rather than setting 100 percent autonomy as the goal for getting robots into our lives, we should deploy them when they’re simply “good enough.” Once they’re with us, they can learn the rest.

“Here’s an example: in hospitals, a delivery robot could pass out towels and medication. If it were to get stuck leaving a room, the machine could call a command center where a human technician would figure out the problem and free the robot. Here’s the key: every time a person made a fix, the robot would keep that new information and use it to perform differently the next time it leaves the room. With humans in the mix, this robot could learn from its mistakes and continually push toward 100 percent autonomy.

“As for R2-D2 and his friends, we’re not that far from personal robots. I don’t think we’ll have to clean our houses in 20 years because we’ll have robot helpers. I’m not sure what they’ll cost or if people will psychologically be ready to give up that part of their lives, but we’ll have the software and hardware in place to make it happen.

On to the more esoteric side of Star Wars…