Geek Out

How Close Are We To Living In The Star Wars Universe?

Over the weekend, geeks everywhere celebrated May The Fourth: the world’s pre-eminent celebration of all things Star Wars. After you’ve donned your favourite Jedi cloak, played with your replica lightsaber and rebuilt your favourite X-Wing Lego replica for a third time, come with us on a journey down the rabbit hole as we ask just how long it will take to live in the Star Wars universe.

Believe it or not, we’re well on our way to creating many of the technologies we saw and fell in love with when we first watched Star Wars.

The most interesting innovations are being powered by the internet. The way we search for information and the way we’re presented with knowledge has evolved rapidly over the last decade.

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Google is the search giant of choice for the world these days, and what was once a platform where people plugged in keywords and got a result is now a platform that feeds information to you

Google started as a basic search engine: put stuff in, get stuff back based on the keywords and commands. Now it’s becoming an engine to feed you the information without you asking for it thanks to inventions like Knowledge Graph.

The machine isn’t just going to spew information at you all-day, everyday: it’s contextually-relevant.

When you wake up, you care about weather because of how you dress. Calendars plan your day and tells you traffic on the way to work and the specific route so you don’t lose time. Meetings, packages being shipped are there too. Google works to remove friction from your day-to day-life and helps you get around.

All of this culminates in Google Now: Google’s personal assistant that gives you the information you need, when you need it, without even asking. Google’s goal is to have computers do the hard work of finding information for you, so all you need to do is read it.

How is that helpful for us living in a Star Wars universe, though? Because the information isn’t for you, it’s for the Droids.

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Jonathan Roberts is the Research Director of CSIRO Autonomous Systems Laboratory. What does that mean? He has 50 people design robots all day to do stuff.

He tells us that there are advances being made to droid-like technology everyday, adding that we’re now starting to work alongside robots rather than just have them work in a vacuum environment. Rather than machines work to assemble or paint a car on a production line, for example, workers are now having robots act as personal assistants on production lines. They’re going to get tools, holding stuff in place and generally helping out, he tells us.

So how far are we from having protocol droids dressed in gold suits of armour talking to us? Jonathon says a fair way yet.

“The Star Wars robots are very different to the ones we have now. They’re incredibly capable and they can do just about anything. The robots we have today are made only for a specific task, there’s not a general all-purpose robot like C-3PO.

“There is a desire to make more general robot rather than getting them to make one specific thing. That’s just also a driver for a better business model for robots: nobody’s going to buy one if they can’t do more than one thing.”

The biggest problem right now when designing Star Wars-style robots for the real world is autonomy: robots can’t really think for themselves yet.

“We talk about three things when it comes to building a robot: you need sense, think and act sensors.

A robot has a sensor world, so it compares what’s in the world and compares that to the task it has to do, and then it acts, so that means moving its legs or its wheels. We’re quite well progressed in the acting part because we can execute code, but percieiving the environment — sensing — is very hard. It’s not as mature as the acting part. the thinking part also isn’t mature, that’s what we need for an all-purpose robot,” Jonathon tells us.

“A common misconception, however, is that you have to have the brain in the robot. You don’t. You can outsource that to the internet to think for it. That gives us hope that we can make some more rapid progress and because of cloud computing — scaling up a brain,” he adds.

That’s where people like Google come in with the way they present information to systems. It’s an internet of things.

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Robotics aside, the basic premise of Star Wars is that two factions, good and evil, fight it out for control of the galaxy. We’re not having a world war, let alone an interstellar war just yet, but that won’t stop researchers coming up with new ways to wreak havoc. Our weapons of war are getting smarter.

We have pain rays, rail guns and sound cannons, and while we might not have a sword made of light and energy that can cut people in half, we have laser cutting technology that we’re putting to more practical use.

We’re even inventing clever spacecraft like the SpaceX Dragon and the Virgin Galactic, and other craft that are capable of delivering payloads to our nearest space station.

Speaking of space stations, there’s even a few competing projects to build humanity’s first Death Star.

So while we may not be ready for interstellar war, sword-wielding future samurais and moon-sized space stations just yet, the technology from a galaxy far, far away is certainly coming.

Image: Lucasfilm