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SYFY WIRE robots

These aren't the droids you’re looking for because Star Wars apparently got them wrong

The droids you are looking for might actually exist in this galaxy.

By Elizabeth Rayne
IG-11 The Mandalorian

There is a place where humanoid and not-so-humanoid robots can serve you drinks or be your sidekicks in the battle against Imperial forces, but only in a galaxy far, far away.

Star Wars and droids are almost synonymous. You have C-3PO and R2D2 tagging along with Luke and Han, a horde of clones fighting for the Empire, astromech BB-8 rolling with Poe and Rey, Jabba the Hutt’s freakish kitchen droid, and IG-11 guarding precious cargo until he (spoiler alert) self-annihilates. Most of these droids seem to have been born of highly advanced technology. How else can one robot teach Grogu’s class in The Mandalorian and another fire laser beams from its eyes if someone comes too close to the baby doppelgänger of Yoda?

Roboticist Robin Murphy of Texas A&M University is a Star Wars fan. Don’t get that wrong. What she thinks the producers of the movies and TV series in the Star Wars universe did get wrong is the droids and their capabilities. They might be far out, but apparently not far out enough to function in this galaxy. Murphy recently published a study in Science Robotics.

“Droids in Star Wars are there to either serve as cool retro-futuristic props in the background or to be characters,” she told SYFY WIRE. “Real-world robots have to fit economic niches. The applications for Star Wars droids are surprisingly limited, and being cool doesn’t pay the bills.”

Try to mentally take apart IG-11 from The Mandalorian. The former assassin guards Grogu with his life — or at least what semblance he has of a life — but would be hugely impractical. This droid is all joints. More joints mean more moving parts, and more moving parts mean more maintenance, because something is eventually going to bust. Something could always wear down or misalign, and it doesn’t help that the planet Nevarro is covered in dust and sand that could easily sneak into and erode a wrist or a knee. That isn’t even the worst of it. IG-11’s abilities that can be used to save or kill simultaneously make him a computational burden.

The problem with IG-11 on a computational level is that he needs a robotic nervous system that can keep up with the demands he has to meet. His head can swivel around 360 degrees, which is an asset to humans and aliens who can’t watch out for the enemy at every angle, but that also means the system he runs on has to be aware of how long it has been since he surveyed an area for Imperial spies. That same droid brain needs to tell him when to switch views and when to drop everything if he picks up a signal from something suspicious.

“This seems trivial, but computationally it is up there with planning how satellites should handle requests to look at different areas of the Earth,” said Murphy. “If IG-11 had sensors in the back of its head, and arms too, it wouldn’t need so many joints or have to move about as much or have gaps in what it is seeing and able to shoot at.”

Then you have droids trying to do human jobs other than being a metal bodyguard. These jobs range from bartending at the Mos Eisley Cantina to translating interplanetary languages to teaching a classroom of human and alien offspring. They also require a high degree of intelligence, especially social intelligence. BB-8 can understand and respond to human emotion, but despite our progress, humans haven’t exactly figured out how to translate our thought process and emotions to robotic versions of ourselves yet. This might be the one area where Star Wars droids are actually more advanced than anything you’d find on Earth.

The organic yet artificial Cylons in Battlestar Galactica are even more sci-fi in this regard. Somehow, these humanoid automatons with unreal cybernetic abilities can live on the edge of a black hole without being crushed by gravity, but even that is nothing compared to how their minds can communicate nonverbally, as well as be stored, transmitted, and re-programmed. Cylon brains can even be interfaced with computers. These droids also have human emotions.

“If something moves, we subconsciously tend to treat it as if it were alive,” said Murphy. “But that cute little robot companion doesn’t really love you; it’s just playing the probabilities on what you are likely to want or like and how you will respond.”

More issues with the Star Wars droids make them impractical. AT-ATs and AT-STs may look badass, but they need humans to teleoperate their gargantuan legs, and the Empire has those same humans to thank for missing critical hits on Ewoks and the Rebel Alliance. Droid intelligence is also weird. The beeps and boops of Droidspeak might have become iconic, but it is much easier for robots to speak like humans and more difficult for them to understand human speech and intent. With droids like RD-D2 and C-3PO, the inverse happens.

Another curious thing about C-3PO is that he can understand millions of languages. He must have somehow been programmed for that, so why are the smaller astromechs like R2 and BB-8 incapable of speech? Droids don’t really do many practical jobs in Star Wars, either. There are no flying cars or leveled-up Roombas, no robot swarms mining a distant planet. No drones exist, either. How could they leave drones out of Star Wars? It makes no sense.

There is one type of droid in that vast galactic realm which actually does exist in real life. You know those stray robo-dogs wandering around a Tatooine market in The Book of Boba Fett? Those are the one droid in Star Wars that actually functions in the real world, because they are Boston Dynamics’ Spot. They might not do much, but they are autonomous and can get back up if they trip. At least they aren’t constantly missing targets like the Stormtroopers seem to do when they have the best opportunities in front of them. So why do they miss?

“As a roboticist, I have no idea why they miss so much,” Murphy said. “As a Star Wars fan, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

If you're suddenly in the mood to relive all of Battlestar Galactica from the beginning, you can as part of SYFY REWIND, a throwback marathon that includes fan favorites Battlestar Galactica, Quantum Leap, and Xena: Warrior Princess — with full series all running from the beginning. SYFY REWIND marathons will air Fridays from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. Check out the SYFY schedule for more details.