Today’s post comes from Steve Grooms
I used to hate computers. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, computers increasingly intruded into the lives of average people. And they were no fun. I hated them. Just about everybody did. People had notes on their cubicle walls saying, “I am a human being. Do not bend, fold or mutilate.” That—for younger readers who might not know—was a reference to the legend printed on the universally hated computer data cards.
When I heard that people were buying computers for their homes, I was astonished. What? People needed computers to do their taxes? That made no sense at all. I suppose I first heard about home computers in 1980, for that is when the first home computers were hitting the market.
Well, guess what? The most astonishing gift I got in the Christmas of 1982 was the computer my parents gave me. My life has not been the same since then. I used that primitive computer (an 8 bit CP/M Osborne) to write six books. I soon was writing email letters to friends, sending articles and manuscripts electronically to publishers and even (yes!) using the computer to do my taxes. A computer hater became a computer lover almost overnight, and now I can’t imagine life without my computer. I use it more and enjoy it in more ways than my TV.
All of this is necessary background for what this blog is really about, which is robots.
When I first heard people wanted robots for their homes, I was amazed and derisive, just as I had been about home computers. And just like computers, robots are coming into our lives and into our homes. The most militantly humanistic young couple I know owns a robot that whirrs around vacuuming their home without human guidance. The manufacturer of the Roomba now makes a similar robot that mops tile floors.
Now there are robot lawn mowers that will roar around peoples’ yards mowing the grass without human guidance. If I had a lawn to mow now I’d be tempted by these. They aren’t cheap. For all I know, they might chop up the occasional tulip garden or Pomeranian. But these are the “Model T” versions of robotic lawn mowers, after all. We can expect them to get better and cheaper year by year, just as computers did.
When I scoffed at the notion that robots would enter our homes, I was thinking of little tin men clanking around brandishing brooms, trying to sweep the kitchen floor. But that’s not the way it will happen. Of course, that could come. Sony already makes a robot called the QRIO that looks like the stereotype of a robot, something that has two legs and two arms and walks upright. But that’s not how robots will first enter our lives.
The first robots to enter our homes will be stationary, yet they will be able to listen to us and talk back. And they are already here. Examples include the Amazon Echo, Amazon Dot or Google Home. These little robots were extremely popular Christmas gifts this year. What they feature is artificial intelligence. They talk to us and respond to things we say. They interact with their human “owners.” They even perform simple tasks, like playing music or ordering takeout food.
I first understood how close all this is to revolutionizing our world a few weeks ago when I viewed a promotional video for Jibo, the “home robot.” I used to think “home robot” was an oxymoron like “military intelligence.” But, no, it is a clever new social robot. Watch this video and draw your own conclusions:
This is the future. And the future is now. Robots are changing our lives, just as computers once did. Brace yourselves!
What will home robots do? Nobody can know for sure, but the general answer is that they will do anything that is unpleasant or bothersome to the point we don’t like to do it ourselves.
Something else that is coming—and indeed is here already—is the robotic pet. These are highly popular in some societies. Count me among those who are creeped out by the idea of a robotic cat or dog. But many people, particularly in Japan, find robotic pets comforting. A robotic cat presumably would not need a sandbox, and it would only “eat” batteries.
Beyond doing unpleasant things, I am convinced that social robots will increasingly serve as substitutes for human friends. We already have robots that chat with us and perform small tasks. It wouldn’t be difficult to create a small robot with AI that that would have something like a face and something like a personality. Are there lonely people in this world who would love to have a robot that never tires of talking to them and laughs explosively at their jokes? How would you react to a robot that sits by your toaster in the morning chatting with you, making coffee, delivering a weather report and saying snarky things about Donald Trump?
What bothersome tasks would you like to have done by a home robot?