Archive for the 'robots' Category

Where are the Robots?

“Dawn of the Age of Robots” reads the plug for the cover story of January 2007’s Scientific American. The article’s title: “A Robot in Every Home.” The cover shows a picture of a kneeling figure that looks a lot like C-3PO, but with what appear to be more numerous and flexible joints than those that animated the Star Wars character.

The article goes on to compare today’s dawn — that of the age of robots — to the dawn thirty years ago of the age of computers. Bill Gates, the article’s prescient author, describes a future in which our lives are made infinitely easier because while we slave away at the office, smart mobile devices that we control from our work PCs will clean our floors, do our laundry, mow our lawns, protect our homes, and dispense medicine to our aging relatives. Gates outlines the challenges facing the robotics field as well as its breakthroughs. Clever illustrations show hard-working robots — robots that for the most part look more like remote controlled carpet cleaners than androids and are assigned names that correspond to their functions — “laundry folding robot,” “surveillance robot,” and “floor-cleaning robot,” for example. The robot pictured dispensing medicine to an elderly woman in bed is the most humanoid and by far the most frightening; it looks as if it has other things in mind for Grandma.

I don’t mean to naysay. (And who am I to say that Bill Gates has a blurred perspective on our technological horizons?) I would love it if we could finally say we have reached the dawn of the age of robots. But this talk rings too familiar.

We’ve been anticipating the arrival of robots — robots made in our image, dammit! — for a long time now. If you’d asked me back in 1980 what role I thought robots might play in my life twenty-seven years down the line, I’d have imagined that robots would do just about everything I figured my future adult self wouldn’t want to do — clean my house, fix my plumbing, drive my car, answer my phone, go on my dates… you get the picture. But there wouldn’t be fifteen robots, each one responsible for some specialized task. That was not the promise of mid- to late-twentieth century science fiction. No no no!

There was supposed to be one robot and that robot would be like the family dog except smarter and more responsible and skilled. Where the hell is that guy? I don’t want to hear about the new dawn until there is an indifferent automaton at the foot of my recliner massaging my feet or at least a real promise of an indifferent automaton, etc. on the horizon.

Gates touches on the expectations fiction and popular culture have set and concedes when he writes that “we have a long way to go before real robots catch up with their science-fiction counterparts.” He also warns us that the robots he sees on the horizon won’t look much like C-3PO and because of this, probably won’t be called robots.

So really, Gates isn’t talking about robots. He’s talking about fancy lawn mowers. He’s talking about those remote-controlled cars I used to play with as a kid. He should have titled the article “Another Dawn of the Age of Those Remote Controlled Cars You Used to Play With When You Were a Kid.” Come on now, Bill! We covered that ground thirty years ago.

It’s been too long. Let’s get mad. I’m not sure where we ought to direct our anger. Maybe at Gates. Maybe at George Lucas. Maybe at some frustrated guy at MIT.

No more empty promises. Bring on the robots. I want my C-3PO.