The Sci-Fi Future of Star Wars is Already Here


Forty years ago, Star Wars: A New Hope (then simply titled Star Wars) debuted in theaters, dazzling audiences with its spectacular vision of a futuristic world. Today, Star Wars remains a major cultural touchstone.

The iconic robot duo of R2-D2 and C-3PO captured the hearts of audiences worldwide in their 1977 debut. The pair went on to feature in the rest of the original trilogy and the latest main series film, The Force Awakens, plus a cameo in Rogue One. (They were also in three other films, but we’re not going to talk about that.) They’ve been joined by other droid allies, most notably the spherical BB-8, and they’ll be on our screens again in December when The Last Jedi releases.

Even as their movie career has continued, humans on the other side of the silver screen have been working to make their fantastic capabilities a reality. We now have AI technologies that, in many cases, match the abilities of our favorite fictional robots.

R2-D2 and BB-8: Prescriptive maintenance

R2-D2 and BB-8 are both astromech droids, designed to be slotted into a starfighter, such as an X-wing, and to diagnose and fix maintenance issues in real time. Astromech droids can also monitor flight performance and power management and use this data to optimize shipboard systems.

Amazingly, real-life AI programs are now capable of all of this and more. Machine learning programs designed for prescriptive maintenance have already been deployed across a wide range of industries, including energy, utilities, and oil and gas. These systems use learning algorithms and statistical modeling to flag potential issues or impending mechanical failures long before they occur. They will then suggest possible courses of action and even go so far as to implement solutions, such as automatically ordering new parts needed for repairs. Additionally, like their science fiction counterparts, machine learning prescriptive maintenance systems can use all of the data they ingest to pinpoint weak points in operations and make recommendations for optimizing operational efficiency.

Like R2-D2 and BB-8, these AI solutions are capable of learning and growing over time, giving them a heightened level of intelligence and allowing them to make observations or come up with solutions that might not occur to humans. Just think of how R2 cleverly used his fire extinguisher to create a smokescreen in The Empire Strikes Back, allowing the heroes to escape from danger.

Unlike R2, however, real machine learning systems won’t become stubborn over time.

C-3PO once told R2-D2, “For a mechanic, you do seem to do an excessive amount of thinking.” If there’s one thing industries are beginning to realize, it’s that AI mechanics that can think—and provide innovative solutions—are worth their weight in galactic credits.

C-3PO: Natural language processing

C-3PO, on the other hand, is a protocol droid, designed to aid in diplomatic relations across the galaxy by providing information on etiquette and, more crucially, acting as a translator not only for organic species, but for computer systems and other droids as well. We most commonly see him interpreting R2’s sassy remarks, but his linguistic abilities played a crucial role in Return of the Jedi, when he used his command of their language to convince the Ewoks to aid the Rebels.

With modern natural language processing (NLP) technology, we’re coming surprisingly close to this reality (well, minus the Ewoks). Machine learning technologies are responsible for Google Translate’s recent massive leap forward in quality.

NLP provides a vast array of other benefits as well. It can ingest and use not only the traditional structured data that’s been carefully curated into formats algorithms can easily understand and search, but unstructured data as well. Unstructured data accounts for about 80% of all generated data, including emails, journals, notes, audio, images, video, analog data, and R2-D2’s incomprehensible squeals. In the same way that C-3PO can translate for R2-D2, NLP applications can take unstructured data and present it to humans in natural language, providing an effective interface for machine-human communication. This allows a whole wealth of previously unused data to provide new insights on operation and production.

We’re experiencing an exciting new technological revolution that has the potential to completely change the way many industries do business. Let’s all stop and give a thumbs-up to the power of machine learning, and the droids that helped inspire it.

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