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Columbia Picture’s Chappie, directed by Neil Blomhamp (District 9, Elysium), takes place in Johannesburg, South Africa only a few years in the future. In response to massive crime, the government has begun using robotic police droids called “scouts.” As they are relied upon more and more, the world falls under the thumb of the “protection” provided by this autonomous police force. One police droid, Chappie, is stolen and given new, experimental programming, allowing it to become the first robot with the ability to think, feel and evolve for itself. Some begin to see Chappie as a threat to their interests and a danger to mankind; they vow not to allow anything to get in their way of eliminating Chappie and any like him.
As he did with District 9 and Elysium, Blomhamp creates an intriguing story that forces its audience to question what they believe is possible. This is an action film – a very good one at that – but it has an underlying intelligence and social consciousness that provokes thought. One issue it explores is the idea of a robot with not-so-artificial intelligence: Chappie is sentient, self-aware, and displays a range of human-like characteristics, such as morality.
Is this a good thing?
The character Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) doesn’t think so. He believes that a thinking robot carries too many unknowns and could even represent the end of mankind. Victor is a proponent for “Moose”, a much larger, more expensive and far more destructive robot. Moose is the ultimate droid video game: it is controlled by a remote human wearing a helmet with neuro-transmitters that allow the droid to be directed by the human’s thoughts. Moose puts those thoughts into action on the field, leaving the human safely removed from the dangers of battle. This is quite different than Chappie, who can reason independently from any controlling human.
Blomhamp’s film not only provides solid sci-fi/action thrills, it offers a serious contemplation on the implications of the things we’re capable of. That it accomplishes both levels – the sci-fi/action level and the analytical level – unusually well makes this a particularly strong film.
But Chappie’s world is not some far off dream. Chappie is a film where today’s science fiction provides a glimpse into the very near future’s possibilities. In fact, Chappie shows what we are already capable of – or at the very least, what we are on the verge of being capable of.
I spoke with Wolfgang Fink, PhD, a world-renowned expert in robotics, about the technology represented in Chappie. Fink founded the Visual and Autonomous Exploration Systems Research Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, as well as the Visual and Autonomous Exploration Systems Research Laboratory at the University of Arizona.
Fink explained that the robotics in Chappie are not science fiction. “As far as the robotics (in Chappie) are concerned, that definitely is something that is already here, more or less,” he told me. “For example, we have robots that are bipedal, with the capability to climb, fly, dive, walk, run, etc. As such, the essence of the hardware depicted in the film, that is already a reality.” That said, Fink pointed out that we do not yet have the ability to create fully sentient, self-aware robots.
The robot police scouts in Chappie are an example of something we do have the technology to create. Such technology falls directly into the real-life work of Fink and others. For example, Dennis Hong, PhD, and his team at the robotics department at UCLA have developed a life-sized , humanoid robot named THOR-OP (Tactical Hazardous Operations Robot), designed for disaster response applications. THOR actually looks fairly similar to Chappie, both robots use electric power, both are modular which means you can easily replace parts, both can get into a drive a car, climb ladders and execute a number of useful tasks that would otherwise have to be performed by humans.
The scouts reflect where we currently are in artificial intelligence, which can essentially be classified as rule-based systems. In other words, the scout robots can encounter a certain situation and will act in the specific way they are programmed to act in that circumstance. A scout robot can see that a car is parked incorrectly and tit knows to write it a ticket. A scout can see a person pull a gun, and it knows to then pull its own gun and try to contain the person. These rules can be quite complex, and systems with artificial intelligence have a limited capacity to learn new rules.
While the current technology is not being used for the purpose outlined in the film (i.e a robot police force), we do have systems that follow programmed script,s with limited intelligence (e.g., the ability to learn rules).
The filmmakers intentionally set out to have the scouts (including Chappie) reflect what we are currently capable of. Blomhamp’s goal was r reality, not fantasy. Joe Dunckley, Specialty Props Effects Supervisor of Chappie, said that Blomhamp:
wanted it to be real – he didn’t want it to be over-the-top in its functionality. He couldn’t have laser beams pop out of nowhere. It had to be tough, but it also had to look like something a government could afford in a few year’s time.
Because of its grounding in the real state of current technology, Chappie has a stronger impact than typical sci-fi/action films. Blomkamp says:
The idea was to take something as unhuman as a robot – especially a police robot – and give him complete human characteristics, to the point that he becomes more emotional than the human characters.
The authenticity and impact of Chappie is increased by the fact that he is not a purely CGI creation. Instead, Chappie is played by actor Sharlto Copley, who performs in each scene alongside the other characters. This makes Chappie, the character, feel real. It also helped the other actors, since they were able to interact with a real character, and not a green-screen. In fact, the audience is able to connect with Chappie, as a character, more than the human characters at times.
For example, there is a scene where Chappie is left alone in a sketchy, remote area surrounded by a group of dangerous thugs. The thugs, believing Chappie to be just another police droid, show their hatred of the oppressive police-force: they throw rocks at the robot, yell hateful things, hit him with a pipe, and even throw a Molotov cocktail at him, lighting him on fire. Sure, Chappie physically survives: he’s a robot. However, at this point, Chappie is similar to an adolescent child. In this scene, Chappie is at the very beginning of his evolution. He is impressionable and innocent. Despite his titanium build, the audience has established a true emotional connection to him because of these qualities, just as it would to a human child. As such, it is heart breaking to see Chappie in such terrifying circumstances. You truly grow to feel for him, even though he is a machine.
As Fink explains, while the film does reflect real technological abilities we have today, the full capabilities of Chappie are still just beyond our reach. While we can program a robot to fully function in a well-defined environment, once that robot meets an unknown, they will be much less useful. While we have made tremendous strides in the past 60 years or so in the development of artificial intelligence, we have not reached a point of creating a fully autonomous robot that has the ability to learn and build upon its learning in quite the self-aware way that Chappie does.
It’s just a matter of time, though. In the meantime, films like Chappie encourage us to think and prepare for the inevitable real-life questions that Chappie and Moose represent.
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