Our Robots in the World series looks at the large and small ways robotics, automation, and artificial intelligence are changing our lives.
Few things were more exciting for kids in the 1980s than Saturday morning cartoons or catching a movie on a Friday night. During this time, imaginations ran wild with the idea of super gadgets, robot friends, and alien invaders.
However, much of the technology depicted almost forty years ago in fictional media is actually a reality today. While some gadgets are still far off, many of the tools and robots in 1980s folklore are common in our homes. Here are the top 10 robots and gadgets from 1980s TV or movies that we actually use today.
KITT from Knight Rider
Throughout the mid-80s, David Hasselhoff took on the role of Michael Knight, a crime fighter assisted by KITT (Knight Industries Two Thousand), a 1982 Pontiac Trans Am that was self-aware, artificially intelligent, and self-drivingToday, the idea of a self-driving car that uses artificial intelligence doesn’t seem too far off. While self-driving cars are still a few years away from the commercial markets, modern manufacturers are already adding AI to their machines.
At the end of last year, Honda formed a partnership with SoftBank, the name behind Pepper, a robot meant to help as a receptionist in hospitals and retail settings. These companies want to take the personable aspect of KITT and make it a reality, by adding artificial intelligence elements to cars that can form emotional connections with drivers.
“If the aim is really friendliness, then Herbie the Love Bug might be a better analogy to what the Honda/SoftBank partnership aims to accomplish.” Darrell Etherington, a transportation and automotive reporter for TechCrunch, writes. “This [approach] could act as…a way to use AI to strengthen the connection between driver and vehicle, which could indeed help enhance the human driver’s skills.”
Focused, less emotional drivers can reduce accidents until self-driving cars take over.
Additionally, remote communication technology is also increasing in the car world. Last year, Volvo announced an upcoming app called “Volvo on Call,” where customers can command their vehicles by talking into a wristband.
“This means that you don’t even need to be near the car to send instructions,” astrophysicist Alfredo Carpineti at IFL Science writes. “You could ask the car to turn on the heating before you go into it, or honk remotely if some pesky kids are sitting on its hood.”
We’re not too far off from asking a car to drive up to the curb after a night out or to keep you out of the pouring rain.
Bubo from Clash of the Titans
Clash of the Titans debuted in 1981 as a fantasy adventure film featuring the Greek mythology of Perseus. Bubo, Athena’s owl, helps save the day by rescuing Pegasus and destroying Calibos’ camp. Today, scientists use robot owls in real life. They might not be tasked with rescuing mythical beasts, but they are saving other species in the forest.
In an article for the New York Times, journalist Christopher Solomon shares research from the University of Montana, which uses taxidermied robotic owls to record the warning calls of birds. These owls are used to study bird behavior and better understand local ecosystems. Researchers even found that animals can understand alarm signals from other species and also eavesdrop on one another.
The modern Bubo robot can learn how forest animals communicate and help save real species of birds and small mammals, making it every bit as heroic as the fictional version.
The year 1987 introduced the world to Robocop, a cyborg police officer fighting crime in dystopian Detroit. While cyborg technology is still out of our range, robotic police officers could soon be found in your local force.
David Moye at Huffington Post recently shared the debut of Dubai’s Robocop, a humanoid robot in the mall that allows guests to report crimes and pay traffic violations. The robot can also give directions (making it a helpful member of the community) and scan a person’s face from 100 feet away — a key tool in identifying suspects.
The Dubai police hope to make 25 percent of its force robotic by 2030 and have a smart police station that doesn’t require human employees.
This isn’t the only instance of robotic civil servants. The technology company Knightscope creates droid-like bots equipped with self-navigation, infra-red cameras, and microphones. These robots are meant to help security teams and create a friendly presence around shopping centers or public buildings. A unit can serve as the eyes and ears until human backup arrives.
Penny’s Smartwatch from Inspector Gadget
Inspector Gadget debuted in 1983 and featured a bumbling cyborg detective who used technology to foil the schemes of Dr. Claw. Penny, Inspector Gadget’s niece and assistant, paved the way for technology developers everywhere with her smartwatch.
The Apple Watch still can’t compete with Penny’s gadget, Mathew Jedeikin at BuzzFeed reports. Sure, the modern option can alert you to texts and monitor your heart rate, but video calling still isn’t a feature — which was crucial in helping Penny’s dog Brain communicate with her. Other missing options include laser beams, high-powered magnets, and powerful flashlights. Apple has made progress, but there’s still a long way to go.
Voice Dictation and Light Speed Travel from Star Trek
While Star Trek didn’t originate in the 80s, the series carried through the decade and several movies related to the franchise debuted. Today, tech enthusiasts love to point out technology similarities, from video calls to iPads.
Andrew Fazekas, author of Star Trek: The Official Guide to our Universe, explains how most of the science in Star Trek is accurate and much of the technology exists today. In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home from 1986, Scotty tries to address the computer verbally, only to be directed to use a mouse. At the time, voice recognition and dictation seemed like a far-off concept; today, it’s used by almost everyone.
Even though the TV series has ended, Star Trek continues to inspire modern technology as scientists work to make fictional tools a reality.
“Last year we learned that a NASA lab has been working on a controversial project called the EM drive,” Eric Mack, a contributing editor for CNET reports. “It’s controversial because it would seem to violate the laws of physics, but if it actually works in space, it could drastically reduce the length of a trip to the moon, Mars, or beyond.”
Still, not all technology (even some of the most envied) will ever see the light of day.
“Teleporting humans—I mean, would we ever really want to do that?” Fazekas asks. “You would have to literally deconstruct a living being onto a molecular level, then reconstruct it. Its DNA would be pulled apart.”
As more generations are inspired by the adventures of Spock, Kirk, and Picard, you can bet scientists will continue to create Star Trek-inspired robot technology.
The Fix-Its from Batteries Not Included
The 1987 movie Batteries Not Included combined robots and extra terrestrials by introducing the world to “The Fix-Its,” or alien robots who help a community save their neighborhood from demolition and destruction. From major repairs when the movie villian commits arson to small fixes around the community, these robots were essential in turning a neighborhood around and bringing its business back.
Matthew Stern, editor at RetailWire, recently shared how home improvement giant Lowe’s is using robots to make repairs and remodeling projects easier.
Dubbed “Lowebot,” the Lowe’s robot manages inventory, finds products for customers, and answers simple questions. This frees up staff to handle more complex issues. With Lowebot handling small problems, Lowe’s employees can become experts in their fields and provide dedicated information for renovators.
Rosie from The Jetsons
While the Jetsons debuted in the 1960s, additional episodes were created between 1985 and 1987. This introduced a whole new generation to a family living in the futuristic Orbit City, and more importantly, to their robot maid Rosie.
Depending on who you ask, Rosie’s modern counterpart would be Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, or the less advanced (but more practical) Roomba by iRobot. While Alexa and Siri can certainly order a maid service for your home, Roomba actually does the vacuuming.
The team at Techlicious share some of their favorite working robots, from those that mop your floors to others that clean your gutters and litter boxes. Today you might need an army of robots to do your chores, but at least you’re not actually vacuuming.
While The Jetsons might not have been working toward the scientific accuracy and predictions of Star Trek (preferring instead to make up technology that helped various plot points), modern technology tends to pop up throughout the series.
Danijel Striga at Screen Rant compiled a list of Jetsons technology that predicted the future, including the use of a flat-screen TV in the very first episode.
“It’s a joke, of course: a television set that is the exact opposite of what TVs used to be like in the 1960s, when The Jetsons first aired,” Striga writes. “At the time, TV sets were huge, bulky boxes with tiny screens. And yet, they were a wonderful invention that brought sights and sounds from all over the world to your very own living room.”
Crow T. Robot from Mystery Science Theater 3000
Crow T. Robot watched terrible B-Movies with his crew of fellow robots and with creator Joel Robinson on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Fortunately, not many developers are working to create robots that criticize others, but they are working to create robots that write their own films.
Filmmaker Oscar Sharp and technologist Ross Goodwin fed a dozen sci-fi movie scripts to a machine learning algorithm and asked it to create its own movie script from the material. As the machine created a script, the team took on roles and tried to follow the directions as best as they could, filming their results along the way. The result was Sunspring, a movie featuring three people in a love triangle possibly living in the future, with possible murders happening on the space station they live on. There’s even a musical interlude.
It’s uncertain whether Crow T. Robot would create a plot like that if he had the chance to write a movie or if he would just enjoy ripping it apart with the rest of his robot friends. Either way, the use of robots in filmmaking isn’t limited to 80s television plotlines.
Conky from Pee-Wee’s Playhouse
Robots captivated the imagination of kids from the 80s who wanted their own robot friends and companions. Pee-wee’s Playhouse, part of The Pee-wee Herman Show, drew the envy of kids every Saturday by showcasing Conky (full name: Conk 2000) and his Secret Word.
“Conky had sass and funk and was basically a robot/boom box hybrid that only the MTV generation could ever truly appreciate,” Cher Martinetti, managing editor at Syfy Wire’s Fangrrls, writes. “Why no toy company has manufactured a mini voice-activated Conky so everyone could have one of their own is beyond me.”
Martinetti isn’t too far off. She might not have an actual miniature Conky in her home, but humanoid companion robots are becoming increasingly popular. For example, the team at Blue Frog Robotics developed Buddy, a robot to help senior citizens live at home longer. Buddy provides social interaction for seniors, reminds them about appointments, and even monitors them for any falls or medical problems. It’s like having a real robot caretaker and friend.
All Buddy needs is a Secret Word feature to keep the minds of the people he watches sharp.
Johnny 5 from Short Circuit
Robot 5 was developed in top-secret labs to help the United States government collect intell against Russia during the Cold War. However, when the robot is struck by lightning, he gains more humanlike emotions, becoming Johnny 5.
The idea that robots will develop the same feelings as humans is a common theme in media, and may be closer to reality than you think. Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York recently created a robot able to pass various self-awareness tests.
Three robots were tapped on the head and told they might have been given a “dumbing pill,” that renders them silent or a placebo that has no effect. When asked if it was given the pill, one robot said it did not know, and then (upon hearing its own voice), admitted that it now knew. This is an important step towards robots understanding themselves and their existence.
While these robots might not have the same feelings as Johnny 5, humanlike robots with genuine feelings are likely in our lifetime.
Future generations might look back at the sci-fi shows created today and laugh at how primitive our guesses for future technology were. The shows and movies we watch now might predict the technology we use in the future, or could still be a dream — like traveling at warp speed or fighting shape-shifting robots.