RoboCops Coming To A Precinct Near You? The Reality

In the futuristic society of ROBOCOP, Gary Oldman’s Dr. Norton uses robotic technology to resurrect officer Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) as part robot with his brain, lungs and heart encased in cyborg technology.  Murphy’s personality remains intact after the transformation, but later his emotions are disabled in order follow protocol more easily.  

Dr-Wolfgang-FinkHowever, Wolfgang Fink, Ph.D and founder of the Visual and Autonomous Exploration Systems Research Laboratory in 2003 at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, says the likelihood of creating a part-human/part robot will most likely not happen. That’s not to say Robocop can’t be a reality but a human would not transformed into part robot. “Not to that extent” according to the robotics expert.   

Humans currently can get robotic extensions to replace limbs, but beyond that a personality can’t be replaced with technology as seen in the ROBOCOP movies.  While there are studies that can influence someone’s perspective using electromagnetic waves, brain control is “still a long way off.” In a case study at Cal-Tech Arizona, a cup of water vanished from a human’s perception after their vision was altered using electromagnetic waves.  Beyond that, there are no advancements. However, it brings up ethical questions when you try to alter a personality with technology, he adds.

There are current robotic systems that can take over for humans so they are not put in harms way. Bomb squads have been using robotic system to dismantle bombs for years. Since 2003, NASA has been exploring Mars’ surface and geology using two rovers in their Mars Exploration Rover Mission. Dr Fink also worked with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, California to devise a new paradym for space exploration missions. He contributed to creating an intelligent distributed system of orbiters and satellites that helps control space-bourne space craft or aerial platforms and ground units in tandem.


We’ve seen the rover and bomb squad robotic systems and they are not as high-tech-looking or sophisticated as the movie’s Robocop or the XT 908 Vehicles shown keeping the peace in Afghanistan or fighting Robocop in the finale. “That’s sort of an unelegant version of Robocop so its not quite appealing,” says the Ph.D expert.

SWORDS-robotIn terms of the military using robototic systems in war, Dr. Fink says some technology has been created but an incident in Iraq set back the SWORDS program (Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection System). In 2007, three robotic systems armed with M249 machine guns were deployed in Iraq. That was the first time robots were used to carry guns into battle. Remote controlled by humans, one of the tracking systems “went a little crazy,”  according to Dr. Fink and turned on the troops. Luckily there were no casualties, but the word leaked onto the internet and it was back to the drawing board.

However, he says the direction of the military is going towards sending unmanned airplanes and battle cruisers into conflicts but would that be a good thing? Not so, according to Dr. Fink. “That raises another question of whether it would be easier to fight wars and then be more inclined to go into war because you’re not putting your own people at stake.”

Another issue involved with robots is how intelligent can they become when they are no longer reliant on a human operator a la Skynet in the Terminator movies. The dangers of having autonomous machines is something that is discussed in the science community.

“Robots can climb walls and start reasoning, and thinking for themselves – that’s where it’s dicey. How much responsibility do you put in the robots hands versus the operator?”

He also warns that machines can be physically superior in all aspects including seeing in wavelength ranges unlike humans. So the question is, how much autonomy do you give a system. That’s where you need to “keep an eye on it,” he advises.

Robots may also be coming to a home near you. In Asia, robot servants are already being utitlized, and like in the Robocop reboot, America is still weary of putting their lives in a robots hand.

And that’s why movies like ROBOCOP serve as a reminder that technology can’t replace the human emotion.  ROBOCOP is now playing in movie theaters.

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More about the Expert:

Wolfgang Fink, Ph.D., founded the Visual and Autonomous Exploration Systems Research Laboratory in 2003 at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, USA. Dr. Fink has been conducting the research efforts displayed on this website as a Visiting Associate in Physics. This visiting appointment has been faculty-sponsored by Dr. Tom Tombrello.

Since October 2009, Dr. Fink has been an Associate Professor and the inaugural Edward & Maria Keonjian Endowed Chair in Microelectronics at the University of Arizona in the Departments of Electrical & Computer Engineering, Biomedical Engineering, Systems & Industrial Engineering, Aerospace & Mechanical Engineering, and Ophthalmology & Vision Science. He founded the Visual and Autonomous Exploration Systems Research Laboratory at the University of Arizona.

Dr. Fink has a Visiting Associate in Physics appointment at Caltech, as well as concurrent appointments as Visiting Research Associate Professor of Ophthalmology and Neurological Surgery at the University of Southern California.

Dr. Fink's research areas comprise:

Computational Field Geology,
Evolutionary Computation,

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