The huggable machine: What makes a robot charming?

LAST WEEKEND’S TOP movie added another star character to the Pixar pantheon: WALL-E, a robot whose plucky charm keeps audiences emotionally engaged in a film whose first 40 minutes unfold without dialogue. What makes a dented, dusty robot so charismatic? With his squat body and his buggy eyes, WALL-E owes a clear debt to E.T. the Extraterrestrial, as well as Mickey Mouse, Porky Pig, and the moon-marooned robot in Nick Park's "Wallace and Gromit: A Grand Day Out." But Pixar’s little machine also has relatives in the robotics labs of MIT, where researchers are learning which attributes and gestures trigger responses in human beings. WALL-E’s animators shared the same challenge as modern scientists and designers: how to humanize a machine? Their solutions provide a window on how and why we respond to some objects more than others, and show us how we connect emotionally with our built environment.

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Matthew Battles is a freelance writer in Jamaica Plain and the author of "Library: An Unquiet History."

Daigo Fujiwara / Globe Staff