Wither the robots?

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.


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