Posted on Friday, August 20th, 2021 by Josh Spiegel
How badly do you want your experience at a theme park to be supplemented by a robotic character who appears to be flesh-and-blood? You may be getting your wish in the next few years (presuming that you do want that experience). Walt Disney Imagineering is now working on the next stage of robotic characters, including ones with artificial intelligence.
Yesterday, The New York Times issued a report in which author Brooks Barnes visited a secretive part of Walt Disney Imagineering in Glendale, California to encounter what appeared to be Baby Groot itself, not just a lazy Audio-Animatronic or a Cast Member on carefully designed and concealed stilts. This new Baby Groot, given the code name of Project Kiwi, is just one facet of a larger plan that Imagineers have to create what they’re envisioning as “inhabited places” at the Disney theme parks.
That is a slightly vague way of saying that Imagineers appear to want your experience at a Disney park to include walking by robotic characters in the middle of the theme parks who appear to be as real as you or me. Or, as the Times’ tweet put it, Disney “wants the robots in its parks to come alive.”
Now, the important caveat here is that the technology being worked on by Imagineers is a long way from being fully completed for guests to experience. And as a theme-park blogger noted, stories about Disney’s robotics technology have, in the past, tended to make more waves in the development phase instead of as completed projects. A secondary note, but one worth emphasizing to those of us who are maybe less disdainful of the now more old-fashioned Audio-Animatronic technology written about in a slightly derisive air (if you ask me, at least) in the article, is that these fancy new sentient robots will likely be limited to the worlds of Marvel and Star Wars, with characters like Baby Yoda and the Incredible Hulk being offered in the article as other examples of who we might see come to life in the future.
Doesn’t Look Like Anything to Me
Aside from this reminder, the Times story — seeing as Barnes was able to visit with Disney’s Imagineers — mostly sidesteps the optics of what’s being written about. Can you think of a fictional story in which robotic inhabitants of a theme park came to life and then wreaked havoc? This story feels like the prologue to either the HBO version of Westworld or Michael Crichton’s original film version. (Or, if you like, much like Crichton’s own Jurassic Park, with the sole difference being, as Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm notes in the film, when the Pirates of the Caribbean break down they don’t eat the tourists.)
Leave aside any attempt on my part to say that Audio-Animatronic technology of the 1960s is perfect and should be left alone for it cannot be improved. (I love the Enchanted Tiki Room and Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, but the Audio-Animatronics aren’t exactly untouchable.) The prospect of artificially sentient robots of any kind wandering around the theme parks is akin to someone saying they’re working on a new version of the cruise ship Titanic, but don’t worry, this time it can withstand a run-in with an iceberg. At the very least, let’s hope that blogger was right and these robots, once completed, are an afterthought to guests.
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