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A Red Carpet Premiere for Robot-kind

New York film festival celebrates movies about every aspect of robotics.

On Saturday, July 16th in lower Manhattan the sprawling red carpet in the Three Legged Dog Art and Technology Center lit up with flashes from cameras snatching shots of the evening’s stars.

Millennia hamming it up for the cameras. Credit: Ada Brunstein

But the most photographed woman of the evening wasn’t a Hollywood starlet, it was Marilyn Monrobot, also known as Heather Knight, organizer of the first Robot Film Festival. And the stars weren’t just of the human variety; some of them were battery-powered.

A pint-sized humanoid bot made by Aldebaran Robotics donned a flashing bow-tie as he shuffled down the red carpet.

Aldebaran’s robot getting a hand on the red carpet. Credit:Ada Brunstein

Pleo, the robotic dinosaur first developed by Ugobe and later acquired by Innvo Labs Corporation, also made an appearance.

Pleo, the world’s most modern dinosaur. Credit: Ada Brunstein

Most impressive was Millennia, an endearing huge-headed robot used for “techno-marketing” developed at International Robotics, whose clients include IBM, Reebok and General Motors, according to its website. This picturesque cast of characters gathered to celebrate the cinematic integration of man and machine.

The world through Millennia’s eyes. Credit: Ada Brunstein

In putting together the film festival Knight, who is a doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute, was motivated by the power of narrative. “In Western Culture there is often a dirth of positive storytelling about robotics, but as a robotics researcher, I know that that undersells the innovations and exciting moves forward of our field. With this festival, we hoped not only to highlight the great work and machines that are already out there, but balance the depiction of mythologies around the creation of robotics,” she said.

The evening was a visual and musical extravaganza which included comedic robot reggae by Reggie Watts, and a dance lesson in how to do the robot by street performer Josh Ventura. Donning a sparkling black gown, Knight handed out Botskers (Robot Oscars) to each of the 10 winners.

The films ranged in genres from fiction to documentary and from comedy to uncanny.

The Audience Award (determined by the number of tweeted votes) went to Operation daVinci, in which a surgical research robot at John’s Hopkins University deftly removes body parts from the perennial patient in the children’s game Operation.

The Machine by Rob Shaw was a surprising choice for Best Picture given that Knight generally wanted to avoid the clichéd images of world-dominating robots. But the film, which Knight said, “blew judges away in artistry and construction” is visually exquisite, so much so that I had to check the credits carefully to make sure Tim Burton wasn’t one of the creators. In the dark animated film a man creates a humanoid robot that kills the men he meets and ravages the earth in a manner eerily reminiscent of human habits. Having destroyed everything in its path, the robot becomes bored and, in a haunting ending, creates a man.

The Ethics and Impact award went to Chorebot by Greg Omelchuck who created a world in which a dog becomes robot’s best friend because man has become too machine-like.

Other categories include Most Uncanny, Best Story, and Scientifically Hard Core. According to the film festival website, criteria for selecting films from among the 74 submissions included relevance to robotics, storytelling, depiction of interaction between robots and people, and inspiration of future technologies. Winners received a 3D printed statuette depicting an energy efficient light bulb.

All categories and winning films can be found here.

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