A possible glimpse at the future of theme parks.

By David Z. Morris
April 9, 2017

I09 has spotted a patent filing by Disney for a soft-bodied robot adapted for physical interaction “with humans and, particularly, with children.” Along with its padded body, the robot would incorporate sensors and control software intended “for reducing impacts on collision during human interaction.”

The filing describes tests with a “toy-sized” robot, but this kind of collision-softening technology wouldn’t be that important for a robot the size of a teddy bear. It would be important for a larger robot interacting with visitors to an amusement park—especially rambunctious kids. The filing refers to the goal of “designing a robot that will move and physically interact like an animated character.”

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The patent application, then, suggests Disney may be preparing the groundwork for integrating robots into its theme parks— not just static animatronics, but free-roaming bots that would potentially come into physical contact with visitors.

Technologically, the core idea is pretty simple. The robot would be covered in liquid or gas-filled “skin” modules, attached to a robot’s surface. When bumped or otherwise impacted, this skin would simultaneously absorb the force of the impact and provide sensor feedback that tells the robot to compensate for any impact. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say this is a practical implementation of Isaac Asimov’s First Law of Robotics—that a robot “may not injure a human being”.

Of course, there’s a larger question here, with implications far beyond theme parks. Debates are still ongoing about the real potential of human-robot interaction—for instance, it’s unclear whether senior citizens will accept robotic health-care aides, however effective they might be. Generations of pop-culture terror tales, from Terminator to Westworld, haven’t helped. Will parents ever really be comfortable taking their kids to a theme park full of robots—no matter how squishy they are?

 

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