Monday, June 30, 2008

WALL-E: The Trash Route to Space Colonies

On Sunday my daughter and I saw the new Pixar/Disney movie WALL-E. It's hard not to like the Pixar films, no matter how silly they may be, and WALL-E is no exception. It's funny, sweet, and artistically and technologically amazing. How do you relate to a robotic trash collector that can basically say only its name? It's easy! How do you create a personality with only video camera "eyes" and robotic claws to work with? The Pixar people know how. You have to suspend a lot of disbelief when the robot star is obsessed with an ancient (VHS!) video of Hello Dolly, has a cockroach for a best friend, and falls in love with an exploration robot named EVE. But no more than to accept the sharks who swear off eating fish in Finding Nemo (what do they eat then, fish sticks?). The Pixar movies are just so well crafted that your suspension of disbelief is amply rewarded, and you end up wanting to see the movie again. It's something like "emotional engineering." Skillfully done. And fun.

SPOILER ALERT: WALL-E is also about the environmental destruction of the Earth, and about space colonization (sort of). It seems that by 2100, Earth had become so polluted and so clogged with trash (space junk too) that it was no longer fit for humans. So the company that had apparently come to run everything launched a huge, robotically operated colony space ship (private space!) to take everybody (I guess) off-world for five years while other robots remained behind to clean up the Earth, and probe robots (like EVE) would visit occasionally to see if it was safe to return. WALL-E (the movie) takes place in 2700, in which year WALL-E (the robot) is the only remaining clean-up robot, still dutifully gathering trash, compacting it, and piling it into huge towers (he charges his batteries with solar power, and repairs himself when needed from his collection of spare parts). Something apparently went wrong with the five-year plan. I'll let you see the movie to learn more.

You shouldn't expect a big, sophisticated message from an animated film in which the good guy is a trash compactor robot who accidentally wakes humanity out of a sort of technological and consumerist coma and ultimately reboots civilization (and also gets the girl!). But WALL-E does carry some messages. As far as I can tell, we are too obsessed with consumerism, we are destroying our environment, we are too dependent on technology (especially robots and computerized entertainment), and all of this could result in our becoming helpless consumer zombies. It combines a large dose of fear of science and technology with an almost complete dependence on science and technology. In other words, it's a lot like real life!


Anonymous said...

a very nice movie !

Anonymous said...

I just saw this movie today (with my brother).

It was surprisingly good and I loved how it tied space, waste and taking care of our planet.


Anonymous said...

Remember the parts where they showed all of the space junk circling the earth? Want to see some reality? What they showed in the movie was actually LESS than what is really there right now. Take a look here and see the top movie (TLE5) ... that is a true simulation of current space debris made by aiSolutions which specializes in Space Industry software tools :

FlyingSinger said...

Space junk is a real and growing problem, but the scene in WALL-E of the departing space ship poking through a nearly solid layer of bumper-to-bumper old satellites is still quite an exaggeration. The FreeFlyer video is really cool, and 13,000+ is a lot of objects to track, but note that this includes everything that can be tracked by radar, probably down to a few centimeters in size. So think about this...

Let's assume that all 13,000 objects are in various circular orbits at 200 km altitude. Adding 200 to the 6378 km radius of the Earth, you've got a sphere of r=6578 km. Square this and multiply by 4pi and the surface area is about 544 million square kilometers. Divide this by 13,000 and the average area for each object is about 42,000 sq. km. which corresponds to a square about 205 km (128 miles) on a side. Not exactly bumper to bumper.

Of course the objects are not uniformly distributed at one altitude, but this actually helps. So it's not worse than what they show in WALL-E, and we can still operate spacecraft like the ISS and many unmanned satellites for years at a time without them bumping into anything bigger than dust particles. But it certainly is a serious problem because we don't want to lose a life or even a spacecraft to a high-speed screw, space glove, or exploded satellite part.

patrick said...

Wall-E totally looks like the robot from "Short Circuit"... minus the cheesy 80's style of course