RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It is time now for a celebrity guessing game. Who is cute and smart, a smidge sarcastic, but not overly so, can save the day and never need to take credit for it? Need a hint?
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STAR WARS")
MARTIN: We're talking about R2-D2, of course, the shorter, and I would argue more lovable, of the two droids from the Star Wars films. And I am apparently not alone.
Journalist Clive Thompson has written an article for Smithsonian Magazine. It is called "Almost Human: How R2-D2 Became the Most Beloved Robot in the Galaxy." Clive Thompson joins us from our studios in New York. How's it going?
CLIVE THOMPSON: Good.
MARTIN: Good. So it's not that C-3PO, the other taller droid, was off-putting, per se, but R2 really captured people's hearts, right?
THOMPSON: Absolutely. In fact, even the actors who were on set would often report sort of kind of going goopy with affection for the robot. You know, they would kind of lose themselves. And these are people who even knew that it was just a tin can with some motors inside.
MARTIN: I mean, R2-D2 didn't even talk. C-3PO speaks English. R2 just made these cute little sounds. But you write that that actually plays into why we found him so endearing.
THOMPSON: Absolutely. There's this theory in robotics known as the uncanny valley theory. And what it basically states is that the more realistic a robot gets, the cooler and the more attracted we are to it, until it gets so close to being human that it looks very humanlike, it's very android-like. And then suddenly, our affection for it plunges down into a valley. We actually find it suddenly creepy, as if we were now looking at an animated corpse, a zombie. I don't know if you remember the movie "The Polar Express."
THOMPSON: Its was an attempt to sort of do very, very realistic animation. But the little kids - I mean, they look like little undead zombies cavorting around. So when renditions of humans get too close to reality, we fall into the uncanny valley.
MARTIN: So if we buy into this uncanny valley theory, which is an interesting one, and if we are to believe that robots will one day live among us in a kind of real way besides the Roomba vacuum cleaner, what do you think they're going to look like?
THOMPSON: I think if you wanted to take a look like of what robots in everyday life are going to look like, you can look at the movie "WALL-E," where all the robots - they have these little functions, you know. They do a specific thing. And they look sort of like just toasters, you know, rolling around. But they have great personality.
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THOMPSON: I think we can already see how that's happening because, again, things like Roombas, different little household robots come along. And they're built to do their job. And they are - and this is the funny thing - they're built to have a little bit of personality.
MARTIN: Well, I'm going to wrap up by putting you on the spot. You wrote the article, so I feel justified in asking you if you have a favorite R2-D2 moment or personality trait, characteristic?
THOMPSON: The thing that I always loved about R2-D2 was the very dry way that he would seem to puncture the neurosis of his partner C-3PO. So C-3PO would be freaking out about something - like the Woody Allen freak out- you know, we're all going to die. And he would just give this very dry little whistle or something like wooh. And it was just amazing how that sort of gave this Abbott and Costello sort of feeling to their relationship. I love that about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STAR WARS")
C-3PO: I've just about had enough of you. You'll be malfunctioning within a day you nearsighted scrap pile.
R2-D2: (Beeps and whistles).
MARTIN: Clive Thompson is the author of "Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds For The Better." He joined us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much, Clive.
THOMPSON: It was fun to be here.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "R2-D2 STAR WARS DUBSTEP REMIX") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.