The Droids of Star Wars: Feel the Dark Side

40 years after the premiere of Star Wars, we're much closer to HAL and The Terminator than we are Artoo and Threepio.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

Which is better: Star Trek or Star Wars?

Star Wars. I saw the film opening week when I was eight years old. I had the action figures, toys, playsets, the lunch boxes, the pajamas.

I remember it as if it was yesterday.

The spring and summer of 1977 was an interesting time in history especially if you examine it from the perspective of the technology industry and from a sociological standpoint.

Star Wars came out before the PC Revolution. Apple didn't have its first personal computer product until a month before the film's release and there were no Intel PCs until IBM released one in 1981 -- a year after The Empire Strikes Back came out.

If you mentioned "'handheld device" more than likely someone would probably think you were talking about Mattel's electronic football game or a Texas Instruments calculator.

The pinnacle of home entertainment technology, the Atari 2600, would not be available until a few months after Star Wars was released.

We were on the cusp of a technological revolution. It was on our minds, but out of sight for most of us. The Apollo program had ended only a few years before and space travel was very much been there, done that.

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Politically, we were in the Carter Administration, the "Empire" and our enemy was the Soviet Union. We were in a recession. There was an oil embargo and people were lining up for hours to buy gasoline. We were two years out from the end of Vietnam.

This was the backdrop against which moviegoers were trying to escape in air-conditioned comfort for two hours in what would be a very hot summer.

As I look back it as an adult, Star Wars was really the beginning of the mainstreaming or dumbing down of Science Fiction. And while I enjoy the newer films, and am eager to see The Last Jedi, I don't have the same fondness for them as I do other popular sci-fi franchises, such as Star Trek.

Alas, Star Trek was intelligent and innovative but it would not really come into its own until it entered syndication post-cancellation and the films and The Next Generation which came much later. It was Star Wars' commercial film success that enabled Star Trek to return and be successful.

Star Wars legitimized sci-fi for everyone else. You didn't have to be a total bookworm or social justice warrior to appreciate it. Star Trek had cool gadgets and deep character interaction, but Star Wars had a sweeping story arc and swashbuckling.

In many ways, decades later, they continue to be the Yin and Yang of popular SF mythos.

We know what Star Trek's technological and social legacy is. What of Star Wars?

At first glance, it's the weaponry. The planet-killing Death Star is undoubtedly the ultimate representation of a weapon of mass destruction and an accurate reflection of people's greatest fears at the time.

We were so close to the brink of annihilation in that past decade that so few of the successive generations will appreciate the state of constant fear all of us lived under on a daily basis. It should come as no surprise that the media collectively latched onto this a few years later by referring to our military R&D effort into shooting down enemy ICBM's using fantastical energy weapons as "Star Wars".

While the energy weapons are flashy, ultimately, however, I think Star Wars' technological legacy comes down to the droids.

It is the fundamental, albeit lofty idea that robots can be friends, not hell-bent on destroying humanity like HAL from 2001:A Space Odyssey or scary B-movie stuff like Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Everyone who walked out of that film in 1977 wanted to own a droid. But are we any closer to getting one now than we were 40 years ago?

There's no question that robotics and artificial intelligence has gotten way, way more sophisticated in the last 40 years. But we don't yet have general-purpose robots like Artoo and Threepio. And I don't think we're going to get them anytime soon.

Robots and machine intelligence are everywhere, but they aren't necessarily in plain sight. Nevertheless, they are integral to the manufacturing of just about every complex durable good you can possibly think of and are very quickly displacing human beings in those industries.

Amazon, the world's largest retailer, uses robots extensively in its shipping centers to prep orders for its millions of customers every day. Automated machine tooling via Computerized Numerical Control, referred to as CNC, is also widespread throughout the entire manufacturing industry.

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And of course, 3D printing in the commercial, industrial and consumer sectors is growing like wildfire.

Autonomous-capable vehicles, such as Tesla's luxury electric vehicles and Google's fleet of mapping cars are becoming more commonplace. It will be only a few years before there are purist autonomous designs used in commercial transportation and less than a decade before we see it used in consumer transportation on a wide scale.

Robots are still very much in the vanguard of space exploration and they have brought us to the farthest reaches of our solar system and on the surface of Mars. They will continue to be the biggest bang for the buck in this area as they are far more cost-effective and safer than sending people.

Voyager 1, the most famous robot probe of all -- was launched in 1977, the same year Star Wars was released. It has left the outer reaches our solar system, has transited the interstellar medium and barring its destruction, will pass by nearby stars, some 40,000 years from now.

Robots are also used extensively in telemedicine, where skilled doctors can be thousands of miles away from a patient they are performing surgery on.

Quick-serve restaurant companies like McDonalds and Starbucks are investigating the use of robots in their restaurants in order to streamline operations and to remove the human element from the customer experience.

Robots can't give you food poisoning in your burger due to bad hygiene and due to their repetitive and precise nature, will always make that latte perfectly.

All of these robots, however, are crafted for a specific purpose and use case. They aren't walking around and interacting with us on a daily basis and offering us advice on whether or not to fly through an asteroid field.

These aren't meant to be our friends or our colleagues. These are meant to be our slaves -- as they should be. But the reality is, we've become slaves to them as much they have become slaves to us.

We've now conditioned ourselves to take our robot intelligence with us at all times and put it all over our homes. Our smartphones can run highly sophisticated agents that with only the sound of our voice can find the best local pizza restaurant, tell us the upcoming weather, or the latest sports scores.

And that is just barely scratching the surface of what they can do, because the more sensors we attach to everything around us, and the bigger we make their databases, the more sophisticated their collective analytical capabilities will become.

Many of us now have installed intelligent listening devices -- such as the Amazon Echo and Google Home -- that we've put in our living rooms and sleeping quarters that will not only do all of the above but will also control our appliances and play us our desired music at our command.

All of this powered by extreme heavy lifting done by shared compute resources in the cloud.

So it would seem that our desires to be filled with constant content and information and for the cloud to cater to our every whim is fueling the development of Skynet, Colossus, and HAL rather than Artoo and Threepio.

And if current development in autonomous drones and advanced cruise missiles and other military UAV projects is any indication, we're starting to touch on Terminator territory.

As an eight-year-old, I desperately wanted my very own Artoo and a Threepio. Forty years later, I hope we figure out how to keep our jobs away from them, that they don't acquire too much information on us as individuals, and that ultimately they won't destroy us.

Are we heading towards Artoo and Threepio, or Gort, HAL and The Terminator? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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