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Robophilia or Robophobia?

Robots, long the key symbol of The Future in fiction, are pushing their way into the present. But as with most futurism-made-manifest, the reality of robots will likely be quite different from cinematic or literary musings.

What prompted this for me was coming across the new website built as part of the promotion for the upcoming film version of I, Robot. Setting aside the question of whether the movie will be any good -- although I'm tentatively hopeful, given that it's neither a retelling of Frankenstein nor of Pinocchio -- what struck me about this website was that it effortlessly emulated the feel of a modern computer manufacturer website. In effect, one could imagine that this is a robot built by Apple. Rather than portraying a robot as a grim harbinger of humanity's doom or a tinkertoy echo of a person, the site presents the robots as consumer products, there to take care of tedious household duties.

Of course, that's already the reality for robots. It's hard to avoid commercials for the Roomba vacuum-bot; despite mediocre reviews, it does seem to be selling well. The Roomba represents one scenario for the increasing presence of robots in our lives -- non-humanlike, behind-the-scenes servitors taking care of duties that require little creative thought. That the current version of the Roomba doesn't quite live up to its hype isn't important -- one that does isn't too far off.

The other scenario for robots in our lives was just demonstrated by Sony. The QRIO has a very humanlike shape, and (given the dancing and running routine in the Sony demo) not intended to remain quietly sweeping up out of view. While the QRIO is not intended to serve a particular function (other than demonstrating technology), it is a beta test of future "outstanding entertainment robots highly suited to the co-existence with humans," according to the Sony site.

Now: forget the specifics of each of these, and think of their longer-term potentials. Instead of it sweeping your carpets, imagine a future Roomba cleaning up minefields; instead of it doing a Noh dance, imagine a future QRIO serving as a 24-hour assistant for the aged. Neither of these possibilities is too far off. If we are finally in the early days of the age of robotics, how do you want them used to make the world better?

Comments (10)

Stefan Jones:

Sonybots notwithstanding, I don't think obtrusive, social, humanoid robots have much of a future. Worrying about them is like someone from the late 19th century fretting about air-ships. By the time we can make them worth a darn, social conditions will be so different that our current speculations will seem quaint and irrelevant.

Small, specialized bots, on the other hand, bear thinking about. In a decade or two, a roomba-like lawn care bot could start putting undocumented immigrants out of work. Bots that swab your bathroom clean while your are at work or shopping would just totally rock.

Jamais Cascio:

In general, I would agree with you, Stefan, but demographic shifts may result in more of the humaniform robots than you or I would expect. An aging population (whether in Japan or elsewhere) will need care and assistance, and I really doubt that young people will look forward to lives employed as caretakers for seniors. I've spoken to some tech-savvy older folks (Pamela McCorduck, in particular) who see this scenario as highly likely.

Stefan Jones:

I've heard this argument. Maybe its because I find it so horribly creepy that I tend to discount it! :-)

The scenario calls for a graphic novel. Set 30 years in the future. Decrepit old single sarariman tended by bots that look like Totoro, Mighty Atom, and various sexy anime cutey-pies.

Jamais Cascio:

...and super-Roomba, and flying spygnat things, and talking puppies. The aging sarariman finds himself the victim of an unscrupulous young government/corporate official, leading to the old man's demise. The now-masterless robots -- all 47 of them -- head out to avenge his death...

Stefan Jones:

Oh, you could weave all sorts of scenarios:

The old guy could want his favorites to be buried / cremated with him. Young hipsters could invade the geezer's pad, led by a good-for-nothing grandnephew who has a key. The building management could replace the old man with a robot look-alike, to keep his wealthy, guilty-feeling surviors paying the fees.

I wonder if Patrick Farley is busy . . .

>despite mediocre reviews, it [the Roomba] does seem to be selling well.

I've had one for a year now, and I love it. It takes a task I hate and does it for me in a highly entertaining manner. I follow their mailing list and it seems like it is all or nothing - either it works well or it doesn't work at all. They seem to have ongoing issues with quality control in the Chinese factory where it is made. Buy it at a place with a liberal return policy.

There is at least one maid service that augments the humans with them. By settting these running when they first get there, the maids can get the house clean in less time and get more houses done in a day.

Jamais Cascio:

Ah, good, a first-person report. My big question: how noisy is it, compared to a conventional vacuum cleaner?

Stefan Jones:

And how good is it at picking up dog hair? I'm thinking about adopting a dog, and a daily carpet-sucking might cut down on the shed-fur buildup.

Of course, it might scare the pee out the animal...

John Aspinall:

Any discussion of humanoid vs. non-humanoid robots has to take into account the "uncanny valley" ( http://www.wordspy.com/words/uncannyvalley.asp ) where making a robot more humaniform makes it less attractive. I see smart devices in elder care long before we can build an emotionally acceptable nursing assistant.

Smart walkers, for example, would diagnose and adjust to the gait of the user. They would know how to park themselves at the edge of the crowded dining room, and come at the push of a button on a keyfrob. They could detect a fall and signal for help.

This is how technology gets into the mainstream: incrementally, slowly, evolutionarily. Look for an existing niche, and make some epsilon of progress. Big leaps are very rare.

That make a lot of sense, John. Thanks.


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