Why I love R2D2 (and why you probably do too)

28 May

r2d2I had the good-timing fortune of being at Disney World in Florida a few days ago for a “Star Wars weekend,” the now-annual month-long celebration of the movies held at the Hollywood Studios park. Part of the festivities included a parade of characters from the movies and some of the actors who voiced them. While it was nice to see the likes of Jeremy Bulloch (Boba Fett) and Warwick Davis (Wicket) in the flesh, my favourite moment was when R2D2 wheeled down the parade route making his trademark beeps and bloops.

He was obviously being controlled remotely by someone nearby, but I didn’t care – seeing “him” made me giddy and even a little misty-eyed. It activated some sort of child memories in me.

Then I remembered that it wasn’t the first time something like this had happened. I had the same reaction the first time I saw Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace back in 1999. I couldn’t help but squeal with joy when R2 made his debut in the prequel, saving the day as usual.

Fans of the original trilogy had been waiting a very long time for more Star Wars, me included, and it turned out the thing I had missed most was that plucky little droid. Watching the parade at Disney World years later, I had an odd epiphany: I love R2D2.

This is apparently not so strange. Chess master David Levy looked at how humans can love inanimate objects, ranging from robots to computers to cars, in his 2007 book Love + Sex with Robots. As he wrote, the way we feel about machines isn’t very different from our human relationships since, in many cases, we ascribe our own values to them. We often think we love a person because of traits they possess, but it’s often more because those characteristics fulfill our own wants and needs.

With the fundamental purpose behind robots being to fulfill wants and needs, it stands to reason that they will appeal to our emotional sides. People will inevitably come to care for robots, perhaps even more than they do for humans.

In the May issue of Smithsonian Magazine, Clive Thompson also writes about why we specifically love R2D2 and not necessarily his humanoid compatriot C3P0. It has much to do with the uncanny valley that robots often fall into:

When they become nearly human, we start focusing on the things that are missing. We notice that the arms don’t quite move as smoothly as a real human’s, or the skin tone isn’t quite right. It stops looking like a person and starts looking like a zombie.

Small trashcan-shaped robots like R2D2, or disc-shaped ones like the real-world Roomba vacuum, don’t fall into this trap. They avoid the uncanny valley altogether, but by exhibiting human traits such as a sense of humour or intelligence, we find them endearing. This is again a case of projecting our own thoughts and feelings onto them.

In that sense, there are probably a lot of ways to take in R2D2 and indeed, everyone who watches Star Wars might have a slightly different perception and feeling about him. To me, he possesses a number of desirable characteristics: he’s small and often underestimated; saves the day on a regular basis but rarely takes any credit; is incredibly brave but can also get scared; and he’s something of a practical joker.

Perhaps his most endearing quality, however, is the fact that we the audience – effectively a bunch of strangers – can’t understand his beeps and bloops, only his friends and loved ones can. What child or teenager growing up watching Star Wars can’t identify with that?

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Posted by on May 28, 2014 in movies, robots, Star Wars


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