Wither the robots?Posted: 5 January 2010
When reading books for pleasure I’m a firm believer that you shouldn’t force yourself to finish a book that you’re not enjoying. I can generally tell if a book is worth finishing pretty quickly; twenty or thirty pages. With fiction it’s almost always determined by whether the author makes me care about the characters. Sometimes the idea or concept is interesting, but if that’s all the book has got, then it’s not going to sustain me.
Recently I started, and put down, a book titled Lamentation. It was fantasy, with a bit of science fiction thrown in. It’s the third book I’ve read (started but not finished) that’s set in a world where it had been as technologically advanced or beyond ours but then something happened and they’re technologically back in the Dark Ages, using swords, arrows, and riding horses. In this book there were some robots which had been created prior to the disaster that caused the technological fall. They were resurected, patched up, and put to work. What was interesting about the robots is that the writer wanted to make them not be completely repaired and copied, so he made them steam powered; I suppose he didn’t want to stretch the technological dissonance of their repair and revival too far. I don’t remember anything else being steam powered in the book.
If you know anything about robotics you know that they’re electronic, so the idea of a steam engine in a robot is weird. The robots were the size of humans, so the idea of a small steam engine that would fit inside one adds more to the weirdness. From as far as I got into the book it was never explained how, or with what, or when the robots were refueled, or more water added; they simply had steam hissing from them at random moments during the story, to remind you that they weren’t fully reconstructed from their original design. It wouldn’t have been so weird if it had been pneumatic air hissing from them but it was always specifically steam. In classic robot style they were humanoid looking; walking on two legs, with two arms, and a head; the usual “metal man.”
Although the idea of a steam powered, walking humanoid robot was sufficiently implausible to make me stop reading the book, I eventually realized that I never really cared about any of the characters and so that was the end of reading the book for me.
Afterwords, while thinking about the bizarre robots it occurred to me that our society seems to have lost much of its interest in robots. I remember in my youth, in the 1960s and 1970s, science fiction stories automatically assumed that in the future we’d have robots helping us. Humanoid metal men robots, of course. Back then computers were huge compared to today’s computers. But now we have amazingly powerful computers that are so small that they’re in our cell phones, and a chip with gigabytes of flash memory smaller than a grain of rice. So fitting a powerful enough computer into a humanoid robot is probably possible today. The problems to be solved now I suspect are balance and walking. Making a robot that can walk over any arbitrary terrain seems to still be a difficult problem. Regardless, for a machine, walking is a very inefficient way of getting around. I have no doubt that wheels or treads would be more efficient.
But then I started thinking that even if we could make a robot that could move around in our environment, what would we have it do? The only example I can think of is the Roomba vacuum cleaner. Of course there are many examples of robotics in industrial automation. But they’re really just machines doing the same repetitive task, over and over.
So now that we have computers that are incredibly powerful and small, what are the most popular applications? Twitter and Facebook; social networking. It’s not robots like C3P0 that we want, but more and better ways to be the social creatures that we are. Add in the cell phone it’s quite clear that it’s all about our interactions with friends, family, and coworkers.