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What "Build Robots and Make Friends" really means

Updated: Aug 28, 2022

Of all the actors and actresses who appeared in the Star Wars films, only one has appeared in them all: Anthony Daniels, otherwise known as C-3PO. It's not surprising. When he and his sidekick, R2-D2, made their debut in A New Hope, they became instant fan favorites, especially among children. They had so much personality for buckets of bolts.

Other robots in films and TV have been a big hit with kids, as well -- from B-9 in Lost in Space, to Transformers, to WALL-E. They talk, make friends, show emotions, and often resemble people, with arms, eyes, and sometimes even eyelids (I mean, do robot eyes dry out if they don't blink?).

A robot with eyes and arms
Robots can look friendly, but they are not a substitute for friends.

It's strange that we anthropomorphize robots when you consider what they really are: machines. Complex machines. No different than bulldozers. And complex machines are nothing more than a collection of simple machines -- levers, screws, pulleys, and wheels. Yet we don't see kids in playgrounds trying to befriend see-saws.

Nonetheless, because of the imaginations of authors and movie directors, going all the way back to films like Metropolis, we see robots as something else. Something more like us. And that's both a good thing and a bad thing.

It's a good thing because, as we know at RoboKai, kids are very interested in and excited by working with robots. It gets their creative energy flowing. For many of our members, when they first start building a robot they immediately gravitate toward something personable. They try to add arms, eyes, and noses. Even if the parts don't function, as long as they look human-like, the kids are satisfied. Oftentimes, when the robots are finished, the kids will call them "he" or "she," or give them names. When it comes time to take the robots apart, they can be very reluctant. It's almost as though they are dismantling a friend.

That's why we run our club with such a strong emphasis on people and community. We try to impress upon kids that robots are not people; they are devices -- toys or tools -- that are created and controlled by people. We encourage the kids to collaborate and not get too attached to "their" robots, just as they would not become attached to "their" see-saw at the playground.

Although it would be easy to play along with the kids in anthropomorphizing the robots, we feel there is a line we should not cross. We never want the kids to feel the robots are their friends, because that can too quickly become a substitute for real friends. It's easy to like a robot because they never disagree with you, don't say mean things, don't bully, and can be turned off when you're tired of them. But it's important for kids to learn to deal with the challenges of real friends and build those social skills, because when they grow up and enter the workplace, even if that workplace is full of robots, those robots will be built and controlled by people. And those people need to know how to get along, function as a team, and work through problems.

Don't get me wrong: We have some robots, like the one pictured, that resemble humans, and I don't go around bursting members' bubbles when they give their robots names. Instead, I use it as an opportunity to talk about the difference between people and robots, and gently and kindly help kids understand that every machine, no matter what it looks like or how many "eyes" it has, is really no different than a hammer or any other tool. We can just have a lot more fun and be more creative with them.

When I was young I thought it would be so cool to own C-3PO and R2-D2 (and let's be honest, I still do). But when I grew up and learned that real people, Daniels and Kenny Baker, gave them their personalities, it made me appreciate the people side of robotics all the more. I think I would far more enjoy hanging out with Daniels and hearing his stories about being on the set of Star Wars than owning a robot that constantly reminds me about proper etiquette.

So when kids come to RoboKai to "build robots and make friends," the robots are really just buckets of bolts. The friends, on the other hand, are very real.

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