Of all the futuristic concepts conceived of in science fiction and turned into reality, one obvious concept has failed to materialize: Robots.
It’s been more than 75 years since Isaac Asimov wrote “Robbie,” the first story in his “I, Robot” series, the first robot stories that didn’t entail an updated version of the “Frankenstein,” of a malevolent mechanical creation turning on its master. “Robbie,” in fact, focused on the more mundane—a robot that was bought to be a companion for a little girl. Except the little girl’s mother thinks her daughter is growing too emotionally attached to Robbie and will harm her ability to form human social bonds.
What’s stunning about Asimov’s approach was his rejection of a topic that had hitherto been played for cheap melodramatic horror, of robots running amok. Instead, “Robbie” presented a robot as a normal part of everyday domestic life.
It took more than a decade for Asimov’s prediction to come true—not the robot part, but the all-too familiar familial complaint of a machine monopolizing a child’s attention in lieu of human friends. First it was TV keeping kids captivated; now it’s video games.
But Asimov’s prognostication of robot mainstreaming may finally be coming to fruition. For the first time, there will be a dedicated Robotics Marketplace at the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show (CES). The Robotics Marketplace will likely be dominated by automated and intelligent floor or window cleaners, such as Roomba, Ecovacs and their ilk, but the real lure will be the more anthropomorphic automatons that are designed to interact with humans rather than simply perform a single task.
Some of these “robots” are no more than Amazon Echo-like digital assistants on wheels or a pivot trussed up with animated facial reactions and animatronic movements, such as the Sony Xperia Agent or Bosch Mykie countertop prototypes.
In order for robots to be successful and truly useful as both a tool and a companion, they’ll have to do more than just react. They’ll have to interact, to proact, to think for themselves. This type of artificial intelligence, of course, raises the Frankenstein/Terminator specter that sci-fi has unfortunately instilled in us. But AI is not sentience. For marketing purposes, though, robot makers would be wise to instill their creations with some version of Asimov’s Three Laws.
What limits robots from reaching even Robbie’s rudimentary sophistication is plain old technology—sensor technology, processing technology—and economics. Advanced AI tech such as IBM’s Watson is expensive—too expensive for a consumer product—and no one has yet invented a version of Asimov’s fictional positronic brain.
But if tech history (and Moore’s Law, or an updated version of the same) has taught us anything is that technology shortcomings will be overcome, especially when a lucrative market opportunity is within sight. And one day I hope to welcome our new computer overlords…er, companions.