The Robots Podcast Interviews Futurama's David X. Cohen

Cohen deeply cares about the way science and technology are portrayed in Futurama

2 min read
The Robots Podcast Interviews Futurama's David X. Cohen

Futurama's David X. Cohen

Good news everyone! In its latest episode, the Robots Podcast interviews David X. Cohen, the head writer and executive producer of Futurama.

In the year 3,000, robots are an integral part of society. Futurama's anti-hero is a robot called Bender, whom Wikipedia describes as a "foul-mouthed, heavy-drinking, cigar-smoking, kleptomaniacal, misanthropic, egocentric, ill-tempered robot." Other robots include Donbot, a criminal robot heading the robot mafia and Calculon, a hopelessly self-absorbed robot heading the robot supremacy society. There's even a "Robot Santa," which, due to a programming error, judges everyone to be naughty and goes on yearly Christmas rampage across Futurama's universe.

Futurama is foremost a comedy show, and its flawed robots are foremost theatrical characters. But Cohen and colleagues are science buffs (Cohen himself is a former Harvard and Berkeley graduate and even worked at the Harvard robotics lab for a while) and take joy and pride in providing the occasional "science relief" -- the "z-ray" on Bender's head shown in the picture to the left is one such example (more on that in our previous interview).

As becomes clear in his Robots Podcast interview, Cohen deeply cares about the way science and technology are portrayed in Futurama. It is a difficult balancing act, but an important one given the wild success of Futurama (now in its fifth season!) and the subtle but enormous influence of science fiction on robotics: I suspect sci-fi has had some influence on the career choice, goals and dreams of most roboticists I know, and it certainly does greatly affect public perception.

I, for one, love the influence and am a huge Futurama fan. Thanks for the interview, David X.!

Images: "Futurama" TM and (C) 2009 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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