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Do Robot Actors Have Rights? Addressing the Rise in Performance Robotics

Alex Owen-Hill
by Alex Owen-Hill. Last updated on May 05, 2016 4:30 PM
Posted on Sep 28, 2015 6:00 AM. 7 min read time

Performance robotics has been in the news recently as a robot featured on America’s Got Talent filed for membership of the Screen Actors Guild. Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? At first glance the story seems like a joke, until you consider the key questions it raises about the use of robots in entertainment: At what point does a robot on stage stop being a mere puppet and start being an actor? Who is responsible for the actions of a robotic actor if no puppeteer is present? What implications does this debate raise about hiring collaborative robots in industry? In this post, we examine how the rise in performance robotics could mark a change in how we contract and ensure the safety of robots for hire.

If you have seen the news recently, you’ll know there has been a lot of media focus on one ABB IRB 2400 robot used on the TV show America’s Got Talent. If you haven’t seen the performance by “video mapping and dance company” Freelusion, I would recommend watching it as it’s pretty spectacular. It features a couple dancing inside of a 3D video projection, with the IRB 2400 joining in the dance.

The performance has attracted so much media attention because the robot, it is said, has applied for membership in the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), the union for screen actors in the USA.

My first reaction to the story, as yours may be too, was that this was a ridiculous publicity stunt. However, after a closer look at the implications, I realized that union membership of a robot might not be as absurd as it sounds. Robotics in theater is no longer a thing of the future, it’s happening now.

Could a robot actor have union rights? And, if so, could robot workers also join a union? Does SAG already have any robotic members? (Spoiler Alert: yes it does)

A Long History of Robots in Hollywood

SAG (now SAG-AFTRA) is an actor’s union. Amongst other benefits, it provides its members with contract arbitration, access to casting directors, minimum rates of pay and legal services.

It turns out that SAG has a long history with robotics in movies. The majority of this has been through membership from animatronics puppeteers. Stan Winston Studios, the special effects group who created all the dinosaurs for Jurassic Park, ensured that its puppeteers were members of SAG. This makes sense because puppeteers are performers just like any other, even though it’s not their face that appears on-screen. The dinosaurs were basically robotic puppets.


Safety with such puppets is a huge concern. The T-Rex in Jurassic Park, for example, was essentially a massive teleoperated hydraulic robot, easily capable of killing someone if anything should go wrong. This safety was managed by the Stan Winston team because, from a contractual perspective, the movie production hired the whole team (designers, animatronic robots and puppeteers). Often the animatronics were puppeteered by their original designers, as they knew how to get the best performance from the puppet.

Up until now, such animatronics are usually bespoke - created specifically for each movie. However, as robotics become more flexible, the possibility of hiring the same robots across several productions becomes more likely, making them more like an actor. There’s also a very real possibility that the original designer might not be the final operator.

As we know, robots can be highly dangerous machines if not fully understood by the people around them. Who is responsible if something goes wrong on-stage or on-set?

With increased autonomy, there eventually may be no need for an operator at all.

How would contracts and safety be handled for a puppet with no puppeteer?

Who Is the Union Member? The Programmer or The Robot

Imagine this situation: A TV company has hired a robot to appear on a show. The robot comes with “a minder” (a puppeteer), who ensures the robot “behaves itself” from off-stage. But, the filming times have been changed and now there is a schedule clash for the puppeteer, who has to work on another film. The TV show complains, because they hired the robot and not the puppeteer.

In this situation, the puppeteer is the SAG member, but the robot is not. Can he appeal to SAG for legal help to arbitrate the dispute? After all, SAG doesn’t represent the robot, only the puppeteer. The TV show doesn’t care if he is present or not, only that the robot is able to perform. Anyone could operate the robot, they say.

On the other hand, if the robot itself is the SAG member, then it becomes the key player. Contracts are written up for the robot (and perhaps stipulate that “a puppeteer” is present, but not a specific person). Fees are arranged for the robot and the robot is given access to casting directors. Contract disputes can be argued for the robot just like any other actor.

Option 1: The Programmer as Union Member

In the past, the link between puppet and puppeteer has been a direct one: without the puppeteer, the puppet has no life. Jim Henson (creator of the Muppets), was a SAG member. If you wanted Kermit the Frog to appear on your TV show you had to hire Jim, because without him Kermit the Frog was just a lifeless puppet.

However, an autonomous robot can perform “all by itself”. The closest thing to a “puppeteer” might be the original programmer, who may not even need to be present during the performance.

Eventually, it won’t make sense to have a contract with the “puppeteer” because the robot won’t depend on their presence to perform.

But then who has the responsibility for safety?

Before now, safety was directly assured by the human puppeteer. But, can a programmer be held responsible for accidents on-set if they are not even present?

Option 2: The Robot as Union Member

It’s questionable whether the ABB robot used by Freelusion is really more than a dangerous piece of lighting equipment. Therefore, it’s unclear whether it could really be considered “an actor” enough to be accepted into SAG.

SAG already has at least one robot member: SICO, a wheeled humanoid who appeared in Rocky IV. This robot is both programmable and remotely controllable. As it’s always used under the supervision of an operator, it’s a long way from being totally autonomous. However, if you want to hire SICO you are hiring the robot and not the operator.


It's unclear whether or not such robots can really be said to have made the jump from “robotic puppets” to “robot actors”.

One thing that is clear is that with the ever increasing rise in performance robotics, the following question is going to become very important:

As robot actors become more autonomous and able to be left alone on-stage, at what point does the actor stop being the human puppeteer and start being the robot itself? Who is responsible for its actions?

Manufacturing Robots for Hire

While “robot actors for hire” are still a little way off, the field of manufacturing has already started some small moves towards using “robots for hire”. Back in January, Steel Collar Associates announced its “temp agency for robots”, which hires out Motoman robots as contract workers. Even if uptake for the company has so far been low, hiring out of collaborative robots does seem to be a likely future for flexible manufacturing.

Contractually, the robots are rented on a “tool for hire” basis, meaning that the operators in the company must be trained how to use them. Presumably, the safety perspective is also handled by the final operators and, as the programming is performed by them, the robot it unlikely to do anything unexpected.

However, the level of autonomy here is also low. As the level of autonomy increases, again the question of safety and agency (i.e. who is the actor?) will become relevant.

The difference between manufacturing and entertainment is that manufacturing engineers are well aware of how dangerous robots can be when nobody is in charge. The entertainment industry, I fear, is not.


Do you think that SAG should grant membership to Freelusion’s ABB? What do you think is the future of robotics in entertainment? Have you had any experience using “robots for hire”? Tell us in the comments below.


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Alex Owen-Hill
Written by Alex Owen-Hill
Alex Owen-Hill is a freelance writer and public speaker who blogs about a large range of topics, including science, presentation skills at, storytelling and (of course) robotics. He completed a PhD in Telerobotics from Universidad Politecnica de Madrid as part of the PURESAFE project, in collaboration with CERN. As a recovering academic, he maintains a firm foot in the robotics world by blogging about industrial robotics.
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