Not long ago and not very far away – well within our very own galaxy – talking robots, self-driving vehicles and superintelligent computers were merely fantasy fodder for the sci-fi-inclined. Star Wars has always been ahead of its time, but today many aspects of the futuristic technology described within the early novels and films have found their way into our everyday lives.
With Star Wars: The Force Awakens opening last week, it’s an opportune moment to observe this trend more closely. While we’re not quite in C-3PO or R2-D2 territory yet, our AI systems are more human than ever before. Siri not only provides information to users, she is able to reply politely when presented with niceties. Amazon Echo’s Alexa is more than happy to play DJ to its owner’s parties. Facebook’s “M”, currently in development, engages with the user in natural language to provide the highest level of concierge service. None has the endearing attributes of Star Wars characters, but we’re getting closer.
We first meet C-3PO and R2-D2 in Episode IV when Princess Leia entrusts them with a vital message, though in reality the droids met long before that in Episode I. From the very beginning, they are critical to the success of their respective masters’ plans. R2-D2, who is an astromech droid, helps repair Queen Amidala‘s ship and save her life. C-3PO is a protocol droid who belongs to a young Anakin Skywalker and serves him loyally for years before Skywalker’s descent into darkness.
Both droids witness the marriage between Amidala and Skywalker, as well as the birth of the twins. Decades later they serve those same twins and not only help them defeat their father but also save both their lives at different points. Over the years their loyalty has never wavered, but they still have minds of their own and distinct personalities – helping their human counterparts see past the nuts and bolts and into their warm (even if robotic) hearts.
Today we’re growing ever closer to our digital assistants, who do more for us than perhaps we even realize. Siri can’t yet compare to C-3PO, but she is certainly still a goldmine of useful information. There are droids in space repairing our space stations, though they aren’t as delightful to spend time with as R2-D2. Most modern droids remain highly specialized and can’t put their “mind” to multiple tasks at once, but it is only a matter of time before we have self-motivated droids joining us in the real world.
The field of medicine is already seeing the benefit of steady handed surgical assistants. But the biggest leap in robotic helpers has started closer to home, in the living spaces where we demand constant improvements in convenience, comfort and connectivity.
Home security systems, which already utilize sensors and automatic alarms to monitor daily comings and goings, can “talk” to a digital assistant to unlock doors, turn on lights, and make sure the temperature in your bedroom is just right. But going beyond that is where the challenge lies – how to make our digital helpers know us beyond just our preferences on the coffeemaker or Spotify playlists. Today’s tech assistants know an ever-wider range of preprogrammed commands, but when will they actually “listen” and “learn”?
The next step will come when we can converse with them in natural language, and they will be capable of delivering “smarter”, more intuitive responses. Siri is making strides towards a more conversational interface, and rapid advancements in AI software are occurring simultaneously. Soon we may be having etiquette arguments with a C-3PO droid in our very own homes.
There’s no way to predict just how soon it will happen, but it seems the dawn of the droids is right on the horizon. Watching the original Star Wars: Episode IV used to be like exploring a foreign galaxy, but when we go to see the newest film it may be more like catching a glimpse of the not-too-distant future.
While this forecast brings a commingling of fear and excitement (for every person looking forward to having a R2-D2 there is someone afraid that their toaster will turn on them) the fact remains that our children will live in a world that more closely resembles that of Star Wars than the one we ourselves grew up in.
Brandon Engel’s last article for us was The Top Five Zombie Lit Picks.