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At Amazon’s re:MARS fest, Iron Man actor Robert Downey Jr. unveils campaign to clean up the planet

Alan Boyle
Robert Downey Jr., at right, is dwarfed by the pictures of his Iron Man character, Tony Stark, projected on a giant video screen at Amazon’s re:MARS conference. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

LAS VEGAS — Robert Downey Jr. has been saving the planet in Marvel movies for 11 years as a cinematic Iron Man. Now he wants to spend the next 11 years helping to save the planet for real.

At tonight’s opening session of Amazon’s re:MARS conference — focusing on the frontiers of Machine learning, Automation, Robotics and Space — Downey announced that he’s setting up a campaign called the Footprint Coalition to develop new technologies for environmental cleanup.

Downey said the seeds of the idea were planted about six weeks ago, just around the time when “Avengers: Endgame” was being released, while he was sitting around a table with “some super-smart, impressive, expert folks.”

“The following statement was made: Between robotics and technology, we could probably clean up the planet significantly, if not entirely, within a decade,” he said.

That goal dazzled him. Some of the potential allies he tried to enlist weren’t so impressed (“it was like I crapped in the kiddie pool,” he recalled), but Downey nevertheless decided to lay the groundwork for a high-profile campaign.

“It’s a kumbaya pipe dream, it’s a logistical clusterf–k, it’s an impossibility. Kinda like the movies,” he said. “So, to me, that’s kind of a turn-on.”

More re:MARS: Racer and rocketeer Jimmy Shane shows off Blue Origin’s crew capsule

The timing seemed right: Downey said that he’s finished with the Iron Man character after “Endgame,” even though Marvel fans have started a petition to get him to return to the role.  Eleven years after the first Iron Man movie came out, the 54-year-old actor said he’s anxious to turn his attention to the real-life challenges posed by plastic proliferation, pollution and climate change.

“I swear to God, and I’ll say this right here in front of everybody, I’m willing to spend the next 11 years making good on that statement, and I’ll repeat it: Between robotics and nanotechnology, we could probably clean up the planet significantly, if not entirely, within a decade,” Downey said.

He plans to spend the next 11 months laying the groundwork for the Footprint Alliance, including getting “actual smart people around me,” and put the campaign into action in April 2020.

“In 11 years, when I’m 65, if we make a noble dent in what I consider is a massive threat to our future, the mess we leave behind … I’m going to come back, and I’m going to throw the nuttiest retirement party you’ve ever seen, and all of you are invited,” Downey told the hundreds of attendees who thronged into the Las Vegas convention center ballroom.

Downey’s big announcement may have been short on specifics, but he’s already taken care of a couple of the details: The domain for the website has been registered, and an online newsletter signup form is ready to take names.

The environmental call to action was the most serious moment during a freewheeling keynote that also featured running gags involving Downey, fellow Hollywood actor Matt Damon (who indulged in “Martian”-themed repartee via a video link) and Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant (who was sassier than usual).

That blend of seriousness and sassiness is likely to carry through this week’s inaugural re:MARS conference — which is a spinoff of Amazon’s annual invitation-only MARS conference. Attendees from more than 40 countries have paid as much as $1,999 for a ticket.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is due to headline a session on Thursday, and other Amazon executives such as Jeff Wilke, CEO of Worldwide Consumer, will be speaking as well. But in his opening keynote, Dave Limp, senior vice president for Amazon Devices and Services, emphasized that re:MARS isn’t just about the Seattle-based company.

“We have an incredibly diverse group of people here today,” he said. “Our attendees include astronauts, CEOs, artists, engineers, Ph.D.s, politicians, and of course, business leaders of all types. This is our inaugural event, and I’m amazed that we have thousands of participants. It’s way above our expectations.”

Among other highlights from tonight’s session:

  • Boston Dynamics CEO Marc Raibert recapped his company’s work on robots, including Handle, an ostrich-like contraption that’s designed for carrying boxes around a warehouse; Atlas, a two-legged android that’s adroit enough to do handstands and backflips; and Spot, the creepy doglike robot that Raibert said is due to become commercially available within the next couple of months. Raibert and other Boston Dynamics roboticists put two Spot robots through their paces in a demonstration that required a bit of improvisation when one of the machines took a tumble.
  • Disney Imagineering’s Morgan Pope and Tony Dohi showed video clips about their work with animatronic stunt doubles that can basically be shot out of a cannon, turn flips in the air and land on target in a net. “When I was doing my Ph.D. program at Stanford, we would do all these really cool robots, and then it was always, inevitably, ‘Hey, this robot’s super cool, but what’s the business case?’ ” Pope said. “At Disney, that ‘super cool’ is the business case. That’s what we’re supposed to do.”

Amazon’s re:MARS conference runs through Friday. Stay tuned for GeekWire’s continuing coverage of the Las Vegas festival.

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