Robots are omnipresent in pop culture. Since the term was coined nearly a century ago, robots have played the role of sidekick, villain, and protagonist in some of the greatest science fiction works of all time. But there’s a lot that books and movies get wrong about our mechanical companions. Here are 11 myths about robots that your favorite TV shows and films have helped spread.
1. ROBOTS ARE A MODERN INVENTION.
It’s hard not to associate robots with visions of the future, but we’ve been building artificial helpers to complete tasks for us for thousands of years. In 400 BCE, long before the advent of electricity, the inventor of the pulley and the screw built a wooden pigeon capable of flight. Centuries later the Roman writer Petronius Arbiter built a doll that moved like a person and in 1557, inventor Giovanni Torriani constructed a wooden bot to pick up the Holy Roman Emperor’s daily bread. Some early concepts more closely resembled the metal machines we know today, including designs for a mechanical knight published by Leonardo da Vinci in 1495.
2. THE MAJORITY OF ROBOTS ASSEMBLE CARS.
If you had cited this as fact a few decades ago, you would have been correct: The automotive industry once accounted for 90 percent of all robots in use. But today they’re good for a lot more than assembling cars. Half of the world’s robots can be found in diverse environments including hospitals, labs, and energy plants, with the other 50 percent still working in auto manufacturing.
3. ROBOTS ARE EXPENSIVE.
Home robots have been around for a while, but the steep price of some flashier products has put the technology out of reach for many households. Believe it or not affordable home robots do exist—buyers just have to know what they’re looking for. Smaller, simple robots like kids’ toys, rolling alarm clocks and smart security cameras can all be purchased for less than $50. If you’re willing to set your price ceiling a little higher, more interactive robots that do everything from keeping you company on walks to encouraging you to exercise can be found for under $200.
4. ROBOTS WILL LEAD TO MASS UNEMPLOYMENT.
While it’s true that increased automation will lead to the extinction of many jobs, this issue often gets blown out of proportion. Americans have had anxiety over being replaced with new technology since the 1800s. As has been the case throughout history, future technological developments will likely also play a hand in job creation. So while bank tellers, telemarketers, and loan officers may be taken over by computers in the not-too-distant future, new jobs we can’t yet predict will likely take their place.
5. ONLY PROFESSIONALS CAN BUILD ROBOTS.
You don’t need an engineering degree to build a robot of your own. With the right tools and an urge to tinker, anyone can build a basic robot at home for around $100 or less. After assembling your bot, you can program it to complete simple tasks like lighting up or rolling around. If gathering the components yourself sounds like too much effort, there are plenty of robot-building kits available online.
6. ALL ROBOTS ARE HUMANOID.
Robots are often portrayed in film with at least some human-like features, whether it’s a face, voice or set of arms and legs. But gadgets don’t have to follow this familiar model to qualify as robots. Robots are defined as machines that do the work of humans, but a humanoid form isn’t always the best design for the task at hand. Bipedal locomotion is hardly the gold standard in the animal kingdom (as anyone with back problems can tell you), which is why roboticists who try to replicate this movement sometimes run into trouble. Even when humanoid designs are successful, they may not always be preferred by the people who use them. According to experts, we don’t like robots that look too much like us because they threaten our sense of identity.
7. ROBOTS ARE SMARTER THAN HUMANS.
With AI machines besting people at chess, trivia, and other mental competitions, it’s easy to believe that we’ve already been surpassed in terms of intelligence. But intelligence is a complex beast: Even if a computer can process information faster than the human mind can, that doesn’t mean it’s smarter. The ability to learn from our experiences, recognize patterns and respond to unfamiliar situations are other necessary measures of intelligence, and robots haven’t caught up to us in those categories just yet.
8. ROBOTS ARE DANGEROUS.
It’s easy to see why Hollywood would embrace the trope of the hostile robot antagonist: It makes for a compelling story. But even in real life, some of science’s brightest minds can’t resist indulging in doomsday scenarios when speaking of artificial intelligence. One aspect of robotics that gets less coverage than it should is how the technology can be used to save lives. Robots are already assisting in surgeries, detonating landmines, and embarking on search-and-rescue missions. Researchers are also working on nanorobots that could be used to fight diseases within our bodies.
9. ROBOTS HAVE FEELINGS.
Most people know that projecting feelings onto machines is illogical, but that doesn’t stop us from doing it anyway. Multiple studies have shown that we feel empathy for robots we perceive to be in pain. When shown videos of a human woman and a robot dinosaur being hurt, participants in a 2013 study showed the same cognitive reactions to both. Physical sensations aren’t the only feelings we imagine robots to have. When a robot expressed regret after making mistakes in a study from earlier in 2016, subjects actually felt bad for him and graded him easier than they did the robot that showed no emotion. Regardless of how we perceive them, though, given that robots lack self-awareness and a nervous system, these gut instincts are 100 percent false.
10. BREAKTHROUGHS IN ROBOTICS ARE MADE BY LONE GENIUSES.
This is a trope that comes up in science fiction again and again: The robotics breakthrough that drives the plot was made quietly by a single scientist working out of their garage. This is also one of the misconceptions professional roboticists hate the most. That’s because they know any significant leaps in the field will likely come from large teams collaborating over long periods of time. To be fair, although this scenario is more realistic, it wouldn’t make for the most compelling big-screen plotline.
11. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE IS A FAR-OFF DREAM.
When AI is portrayed by the media, it usually involves human-like robots that have been programmed with artificial intelligence so lifelike, they’ve become aware of their own existence. In reality, machine intelligence covers a broad spectrum. AI is simply defined as the power of a computer to copy intelligent human behavior. The virtual assistant on your phone that’s learned to recognize your speech, a smart thermostat that adjusts itself and even a music-streaming service that suggests songs you may like are all examples of artificial intelligence. None of these cases approach human-level cognition, which means a robot uprising is still the stuff of sci-fi. For now.