When it was released in 1977, Star Wars gave fans a glimpse of the future where interplanetary travel and personal robots were commonplace, but in 39 years since its release – how close are we to making these technologies a reality?
The Death Star has fascinated many Star Wars fans over the years, with many wondering whether it would be possible to recreate such a spectacularly complex piece of technology. This curiosity led to a petition several years ago that asked the Obama administration about the possibility of such an endeavour, and in the spirit of a government responsive to its people’s needs – the government came back with an estimate of $850,000,000,000,000,000 for the construction of a Death Star, aside from the development of any new technologies involved.
As the cost is notably larger than the GDP of the planet, we should not expect the construction of such a momentous project in the near future says Paul Kostek, senior member of the Institute for Electric and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), a group which describes itself as “dedicated to advancing technology for the benefit of humanity”
“The International Space Station took many years to complete, with numerous Space Shuttle missions. How would we go about building the Death Star? It would take the combined efforts of the national programs – US, Russian, Chinese, Indians and French along with the commercial launch companies – Space X, ATK and Orbital Sciences. Would we really want to dedicate all of our capacity to this effort and ignore launches to support future exploration and scientific research of the earth? Unless there is a world wide effort to build a Death Star and agreement on what we would do with it, we shouldn’t expect to see one in work anytime soon.”
However, Kostek is more optimistic about the progress of robots where he says “we’re making progress on and the evolution from fantasy to reality”. In fact, he argues “of all the technologies the robots may be the first we commonly see in use in the 21st century”.
Indeed, humanoid robots appeared in the recent DARPA Robotics challenge and “humans are now eager and ready for robotic companions”, claims Dr Kevin Curran, senior member of the IEEE, senior lecturer in Computer Science at the University of Ulster.
He notes an interesting long-term study into human-robotic relationships, where a teenage was asked who he would talk to about dating problems. In 1983, the boy said it would be his Dad “because machines could never truly understand human relationships”, but in 2008 another teenage boy from the same neighbourhood said he would “prefer to talk to a robot as he believed it could be programmed with a large database of knowledge about relationships and thus be better than his dads advice”.
Curran says we are still a long way from true artificial intelligence (AI), where the machine “would be a recreation of the human thought process”, which would “include the ability to learn just about anything, the ability to reason, the ability to use language and the ability to formulate original ideas”. However, roboticists “have made a lot of progress with more limited AI” and “can replicate some specific elements of intellectual ability”.
Science fiction films like Star Wars can give us an insight as to how the future may look, and inspiration to engineers on how to build that future – but it appears it takes more than a few decades for these ideas to become a reality.