Celebrating TARS, the robot of Interstellar

There’s a lot to recommend about Interstellar, Christopher Nolan’s latest foray into filmmaking. Between the epic science fiction storyline, the way the movie breathlessly bounces between enormous concepts – both scientific and philosophical – and the phenomenal performances by all of the lead actors, Interstellar is a movie that leaves the viewer breathless, fascinated and moved.  There are a number of theories regarding the rather mindblowing storyline, which I do want to discuss in a later post, once I’ve had more time to digest all of it.

But for now,  I want to shine some light on one of the small – but important –pieces of Interstellar: its rather unique depiction of a robot. It’s small, because artificial intelligence isn’t a major part of the storyline, but important, because Nolan’s depiction of robots breaks new ground while simultaneously honoring the past.

In Interstellar, the astronauts are aided by a robotic assistant known as TARS, and these are the five reasons that TARS is one of the best cinematic robot depictions of all time:

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5. Designed based on FUNCTIONALITY, instead of being modeled after humans

Hal-9000 aside, we’ve generally become used to the idea of seeing robots designs that are, visually, modeled after human beings. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as many real robots are modeled after humans, and putting a human face on something often makes it easier for the audience to empathize with that robot as a character.

However, when we look toward the future – where technology is becoming a bigger and bigger part of our everyday lives – we see that while robots are going to play an increasingly major part in our lives, these robots aren’t modeled after human beings.  And why would they?  We aren’t creating robots for the purpose of walking around, reproducing and living in apartments. Robots are built for a specific purpose: to function as a tool that makes a human’s life easier. Consider your smartphone. Your desktop computer. Your smart TV. Your coffee machine.  All of these things are designed for functionality. Designing them to replicate the shape of a human being would be purposeless.

TARS, the robot in Interstellar, is essentially built out of block pillars that can intersect at various different angles. He can speak, emote and on flat surfaces can walk like a pair of human legs, but he’s purposely designed for the sake of traversing on multiple different terrains. While I can’t say whether this design would be functional in real life, it is functional in the universe of the film, where the robot’s strange design actually allows him to save one of the crew members from death in a way that an android would not have been capable of.

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4. Customizability and transparency

Why do people like social networks? Why do they change the wallpaper on their desktop? Why do they set a different ringtone for every person on their contacts list?

Because when it comes to technology, people like customizability. We want to reshape every piece of technology to our specific desires, and we want the process that enables this to be transparent and fully accessible.

Robots in fiction have been portrayed with many different types of personalities: aggravating, abrasive, humorous, good natured and/or hostile. The idea of artificial intelligence manifesting this way is an amazing concept that’s produced some equally-amazing stories, and it’s certainly a concept that should never be abandoned.  We all love the Terminator movies, and I do think that this year’s critically-panned Transcendence is an underrated masterpiece.  But what makes TARS interesting is that, while being artificially intelligent, his actual personality is customizable.

TARS has various personality settings that can be moved from levels of zero to one hundred percent. The two that we see in this movie are an “honesty” setting—TARS recommends that this be kept at 90, as humans tend to react badly to 100—and a “humor” setting.

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3. TARS is an asset, not a point of focus

In theory this sounds terrible, but consider; your smartphone is an asset. It exists as a method to organize your real life data, to take photographs, to get you from place to place.

Technology, at least in its intended form, is not supposed to replace human beings. Its supposed to complement us, and if you’re a person who follows the ideas of transhumanism, technology will (ideally) someday improve upon us by supplementing our biological forms with additional functions. Now, regardless of whether or not one agrees with the transhumanism argument, it’s important to recognize that the intentions behind mankind furthering technological development are not inherently hostile.  Again, technology is created as an aid, a tool, something to help us, not overthrow us.

TARS is created for a specific purpose: to help human beings colonize new worlds. Sure, TARS has other functions—he can talk, trade stories, and so on—but consider. A microwave might have a clock, but it’s still a microwave.

That’s why, to some extent, TARS is largely invisible for much of the movie. He’s doing his thing, correctly, instead of trying to overthrow the crew a la Skynet. When TARS saves the humans with actions that might seem sacrificial, he is quick to remind them that he is, in fact, programmed to ensure their survival, and so his actions are not really as heroic as they might seem.

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2. Imitative consciousness, instead of real human consciousness

Siri isn’t a real person, and yet she can find places for you. An ATM will locate your banking information and give you your money, but the ATM has no actual interest in your welfare. When you sign into a website and it greets you with your name, it isn’t because it’s conscious of you as a person; it’s because it’s been programmed to recognize you, based on a preselected series of traits such as username, password, et cetera.

TARS, though he appears conscious, actually has imitative consciousness instead of real, human consciousness. He can be social with the astronauts, but he cannot be offended, rejected or feel pain. After all, why would you program a robot to experience pain, when that robot is merely being created as a tool to help with your mission?

If a robot was designed to have the human experience, then pain would be necessity. But realistically, it seems unlikely that scientists would create robots with this idea in mind.  And how can genuine consciousness exist without pain?

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1. And yet, TARS still garners our empathy

The greatest success of TARS, as a character, is that despite all of these things that go against the standard model for a cinematic “robot sidekick,” TARS still succeeds at being a loveable character who the audience likes, roots for and empathizes with. This is no small feat. There’s very little that’s human-like about TARS, but we still cheer for him.

Interstellar is a film about big ideas, and in all honesty, TARS plays a very, very small role in it. An important role, no doubt, but the idea of robots is not at the forefront of the movie’s concept. So the fact that the Nolan brothers could take such a small part of their movie, a robot that isn’t even remotely human, and still turn that robot into such a believable, likable character, goes to show just how incredible a film Interstellar really is.

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6 thoughts on “Celebrating TARS, the robot of Interstellar

  1. I agree. TARS was fascinating and made a great addition to the story with the customized honesty and humor. In the theater, I couldn’t always hear clearly what the characters were telling TARS or what TARS was saying, so it will be good to see it on dvd with subtitles and catch all the nuances.

    • Oh yeah, I loved TARS!

      Intriguingly, I read somewhere that the strangeness with the sound/music/dialogue volume in Interstellar – where the voices often seem to get overwhelmed by the music – was actually intentional on the part of Christopher Nolan. Seems like a strange choice, but interesting nonetheless. I’m also definitely looking forward to seeing it on DVD with subtitles.

  2. At first I though WTF kind of robot is that, but it quickly dawned on me the genius of Nolan’s vision. TARS, CASE and KIPP were all brilliant and exciting!

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