Books and Arts

Nature 454, 407 (24 July 2008) | doi:10.1038/454407a; Published online 23 July 2008

Romance among robots

Andrew H. Knoll1


Film directed by Andrew Stanton
In UK and US cinemas now

Romance among robots


A few years ago, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's artificial intelligence lab, I met an android. Her conversation was perfunctory, mostly simple responses to my equally simple words, but her eyes, widening, narrowing and subtly changing angle, made a genuine emotional connection. That robot had me at “Hello”. So it is with WALL·E (pictured), the eponymous hero of Disney–Pixar's new animated film. Part Mars rover, part Andy Hardy, WALL·E charms us every step of the way as he saves a planet while pursuing chaste robotic love.

The movie opens on a bleak future, reminiscent of films by director Ridley Scott at his dystopian best. Earth, abused and then abandoned by a population that never heeded Al Gore, lies grey and silent beneath the refuse of civilization. Punctuating the stillness is a small buzz of activity. WALL·E, a computerized rubbish compactor, perhaps descended from those robotic vacuum cleaners, dutifully pursues work he was programmed to do hundreds of years earlier, before humans gave up on the dream of refurbishing the planet. It's not a bad existence, but as he considers the oddments he has scavenged over time, particularly an old video tape of the film Hello, Dolly!, WALL·E recognizes that something is missing. That something soon materializes in the form of a robotic scout, sent to Earth to search for signs of photosynthesis. The scout is named EVE and ... well, you can see where all this leads.

Movie buffs will enjoy WALL·E's film references — from 2001: A Space Odyssey (of course) to Modern Times. Science nerds will appreciate how both the story and the animation are informed by NASA and research into artificial intelligence. Pixar animators have mastered the literature on non-verbal communication; they have studied in detail the workings of robots from Mars rovers to assembly lines, and have internalized the stunning images from the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes.

The animation in WALL·E is astonishing, but Pixar recognized long ago that technology alone does not fill cinemas. Stories do, and WALL·E's creators are master storytellers. Sci-fi master Robert Heinlein maintained that there are only three plots in science fiction. All figure here: a sweet love story, the triumph of plucky stowaways over a power-hungry computer (remember HAL?), and a plea for planetary redemption. Moreover, the movie is funny. Eight-year-olds and octogenarians alike laughed throughout the screening, usually at the same time.

So, for animated sci-fi that honours both the science and the fiction, steal away to WALL·E. And, if you work at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, go and see it twice. When a future Mars rover angles its soulful head-lamps while asking for more funding, who at NASA will be able to refuse?

  1. Andrew H. Knoll is Fisher Professor of Natural History at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a member of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover science team.

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