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Disneyland taps AI to build the droids you're looking for

Disney "Imagineers" draw on artificial intelligence to breathe life into robot creations of characters, like Jake, a new beeping, booping "Star Wars" droid.

Weights and a gyroscope inside keep the electronics oriented with a magnet up the top to keep BB-8's head in place.

If Disney Parks are where dreams come true, Jon Snoddy is the man in charge of figuring out what to dream up next.

And, yes, that includes bringing "Star Wars" droids to life in front of you.

Snoddy leads the research and development studio for Walt Disney Imagineering. He detailed two projects aiming to use artificial intelligence to make park robots more lifelike, in an interview with CNET Saturday at the SXSW Conference and Festivals here in Austin, Texas.

The projects are part of Disney's legacy of innovation that stretches back to the company's beginning. At Disneyland, that exploration led to firsts like audio-animatronics and the operation of the country's first daily monorail system. Today, it manifests in things like a pint-sized animatronic Pascal, the chameleon sidekick in "Tangled," and a new "Star Wars" droid, Jake.


Disney has provided quick glimpses only of its AI-power robot Pascal, so far.

Disney Channel PR on Twitter

At SXSW, Snoddy showed quick clips of Pascal and Jake that "Imagineers" have tested briefly in the wild of Disneyland.

Pascal, for one, is a miniature robot that fits in the palm of your hand. The little green lizard was a test for how small the Imagineers could build a sophisticated mechanism to operate him, Snoddy said.

"That's what's cool with AI, it can figure out when [the person holding him] is talking and move along," he said. "We'll see where this goes."

Snoddy's team aims to put AI-powered autonomy inside Pascal to move his eyes, mouth and the skin of his face, in tandem with manual hand controls, like a tilt mechanism.

"It's not just the character, it's a character and performer," Snoddy said. "You're meeting them both."

Jake, on the other hand, is a fully autonomous, R2-D2-like droid that wanders around Snoddy's R&D lab like a pet dog mixed with a Roomba (only cuter).

Snoddy said Jake was a project to explore the lengths Disney can go with automonomy, aiming to "build a bot that's going to roll around our R&D facility."

But last summer, Imagineers unleashed Jake from the lab for a two-month stint making friends in the "Star Wars" Launch Bay section of Disneyland.

"Adults are kind of interested and amazed by him, but kids just immediately assume, 'Well, of course droids are real,'" he said. "They talk to him. They want to introduce him to their parents."

He said that one of the advantages of building AI-powered robots for Disney parks is the mentality that guests bring to their interactions, what he calls the "joy that our audience shows up with."

"They're not there to poke him and figure out how he works," he said. "They go the other way and want to be entertained."

But Jake is still a far cry away from the droids imagined in the movies, whether they're family-friendly fare like Disney's or dystopic visions of how AI can alter human history.

"Uploading ourselves into Jake -- that is down the road a bit," he said.

CORRECTIONS at 3:40 am PT on March 16: Snoddy's first name is spelled Jon, not John, and the AI in the animatronic Pascal is planned for its next iteration, not the existing one.

Lucky Disneyland guests this summer stumbled upon Jake's first outing in the wild, like YouTuber DAP's Magic did.

DAP's Magic/YouTube

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