Dec 15, 2020
De’Aira Bryant didn’t come to Georgia Tech to work in the movie industry. Her interests lie within the field of robotics, where she works on projects that will increase the quality of human life.
Being in the heart of Atlanta, however, the burgeoning heart of the film industry, comes with a few perks. Last year, Bryant was able to take advantage of one when she was contacted by representatives from the production crew of Superintelligence. The movie stars Melissa McCarthy as a woman who must prove to an artificial intelligence that humanity is worth saving and was recently released on HBO Max.
For the movie, Bryant was asked to program a Nao, a humanoid robot she uses in the Human-Automation Systems (HumAnS) Lab run by her advisor, School of Interactive Computing Chair Ayanna Howard. Read about Bryant’s experience programming the biggest star on the set.
How did this opportunity to work with Superintelligence come about, and what was the experience like?
The production team reached out to the College of Computing. They were interested in having a robot for a scene and needed someone who could program the Nao to match the scene they had written. They reached out to Dr. Howard because they knew she had that type of robot, and she reached out to me because I’m the person who does most of the customized programming for this particular robot. If there’s a script or movements or whatever, I’m the choreographer.
It was exciting. I was like, “Oh my goodness, this is for a movie.” I had no idea what it was about, but I was just excited to be a part of it. They asked if their ideas were possible and the production team was like, “We don’t know what it can do, but we think it looks cool. Can you make it do this?” We talked on the phone, and then I went to work.
How long did you have to program it?
I had about a week to get it ready. I had this idea of what they wanted, and I just tried to program it as best as I could.
So, tell me about the day of. What was it like being on set?
I took the robot to the Klaus Advanced Computing Building. They were filming in there. It was so exciting to see everything. I had to tell the robot to go on their cue, so I was sitting right behind the camera. I got to meet Melissa McCarthy and some of the other stars, and I got a few pictures with them that I’m excited to finally be able to share with everyone. Everyone was so welcoming and understanding that the robot needed some time. I like to say that the robot was the biggest superstar on the set. It had its moments where it was like, “I’m not ready yet. My joint isn’t quite ready to do this movement.” They were understanding and eager to learn. They wanted their own pictures with the robot and everything, and had their own questions that I was excited to answer.
A lot of non-roboticists or AI researchers’ first experiences with robots is in mass media like movies or TV shows, and normally its some dystopian or disaster scenario. How seriously did you take that responsibility or opportunity to portray the lighter, more realistic side?
I think for a lot of people, robots – especially these humanoid ones – have been largely portrayed negatively. They focus on disaster cases they may never happen in the next 100 years, if ever. There hasn’t been a lot of mass media attention that focuses on more positive use cases. I take that very seriously in our work, just knowing that we focus on people, on children that can benefit from the technology and have it improve their quality of life. It’s important to show those cases to affect the narrative. But we also want to highlight the concerns that are just. Things like bias and ethics of using robotics in certain domains. Those are real things that people are working to mitigate now, so we can bring people closer to what the field actually looks like by highlighting both.
Every time I teach kids or teach a class, I start out by showing what robots can actually do. I show videos of them falling over or something like that to illustrate that those terminators or killer robots, that doesn’t happen right now. But there are some other issues that are real and current and pressing, and here’s how we address them.
Being at Georgia Tech with movies filmed nearby has offered these kinds of neat opportunities. How neat is it to have this platform?
My friends think it’s so much cooler that I helped work on a movie that is going to be on HBO Max than for me to have some paper published at this really prestigious conference. The movie resonates with them more, so it’s an opportunity to have a connection. They can relate to the technology in a way that is natural to them and ask questions, and I can share more about robotics and my work. That’s how we get people interested in the field.