This article on social robotics by Thinktopia® founder Patrick Hanlon appears in GE Ideas Lab.
We are entering a new era of technological connectivity. We already have smart products, and wearable devices, and the Internet of Things.
Now there are robots, too.
Actually, this is not new either. Robots have been used in manufacturing for the last two decades, lumbering back and forth between assembly points, dropping off raw materials, or delivering assembly parts and final products.
The difference now is that these new robots do not lumber. They skitter. They wink at you. They are deliberately designed, much like C3PO, to mimic our actions and register an emotional context.
Where robots of the past worked for us, the latest versions (social robots)—like Intel’s Jimmy, Softbank’s Pepper, Jibo’s Social Robot and the myriad shapes and sizes at this month’s Tokyo Toy Fair—want to work with us. More significantly, they want us to befriend them.
This is a dramatic shift in thinking that may take some getting used to. Or not. In fact, the device that we adapt and adopt first as passing the human gatekeeper may be the real winner.
Developers today are dissecting and sorting through the emotional actions, icons, and expressions that help us to respond and interact with fellow humans. In this way, they can utilize those winks, rolling eyes, head shakes (already familiar to iPhone users who enter the wrong password), and other non-verbal signals to help our brain get past the “robot” and to identify the wires and shell not as an inanimate object, but as a familiar and acceptable companion.
If not directly human, then human-like.
The word “robot” first appeared in a 1920s play written by Czech playwright Karl Capek, the term deriving from the Czech word for “worker.” Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov used the word “robotics” twenty years later in his 1942 short story “Runabout.” Ever since, robots have enjoyed tremendous fictional status, cast as both major and minor characters in everything from Star Wars and Robocop, to The Day The Earth Stood Still and Transformers. Robots seem to make good box office.
As usual, robots as devices are being given handy functional status. We are told they will make our lives more convenient. Even the Internet of Things has devices connecting with other devices to make our lives less complicated: They will lock our doors, adjust the thermostat, and automatically order groceries online and have them delivered to our door.
Everyone who was conscious in the 1980s should be reminded of how home computers were initially sold and marketed. They were efficiency tools (or convenience tools), intended to balance the checkbook, organize grocery lists, even store family photos.
(At the same time, corporate pundits and CEOs were infamously declaring the personal computer had no place in the home, much less in the palm of your hand.)
So let’s not be fooled again.
Fast, fast, fast forward. If you happened to glance at the June cover of WIRED magazine, you saw another wink at the future.
Thanks to Oculus Rift, you can now simply pop on some goggles and step into another world. But be careful. The full 3D reality the goggles immerse you in tricks your brain into believing, and most importantly, feeling, that you are standing on a ledge. Instinctively, you step backward.
It’s not a great leap to imagine how—in Google Glass fashion—these present-day goggles could be scaled down into contact lenses with optics into another world. Another life.
In the future, online sites like Second Life will have the same resonance that Oregon Trail does today.
Where do social robots come in? Who knows. The concept of robots was conceived nearly a century ago. The first autonomous robot came 66 years ago. Personal computers were first soldered together around 50 years ago. Now it’s the robots’ turn in the limelight once again.
What we do know is that they’re coming, and all we can imagine right now is their eponymous servitude. They will belong to us, but we will also belong to them. We will welcome social robots into the human community, into our homes, and into our daily lives.
Fast forward, again.
Most dramatic of all, these social robots will mean “someone” not “some thing” to us. We will let them play with our children and develop kinship, we will let them occupy and change our lives, just as smartphones have changed the way we, well, count the ways. They will develop their own social memes, and fit into our society as easily as Glad bags and Facebook.
This should not startle or confuse us. We already have projected our humanity onto horses, Tin Lizzies, and baseball bats. We have been conceptualizing deus ex machina devices even before humans created the first tooth gear.
Personal robots raise—at least—two questions. What is their function? And what makes a robot? Is not the character Hal in Kubrick’s film “2001” a stationary robot who anticipates desires, performs tasks, and serves as a functionary? From “Iron Man” to “The Jetsons,” we have tried to decide between whether robots should have super powers or valet services.
Another question raised is if we are truly ready for yet one more technological presence in our lives. Like binary code, the answers are divided into two forms: “Bring it on!” and “No, thanks, I need a robot like I need another belly button.”
Perhaps the near-term thing that personal robots need to solve is connecting all of my existing devices together. Fixing the gaffes and the “what key was I supposed to push?” questions that rise daily in our own households.
Contact Comcast for me, or the bank, or the credit card company, or that server somewhere over the rainbow that has lost all my files. Let their servers talk to my servers, and let’s get together and figure it out.
The projected significance of personal robots is that screens will be all but neutralized, meaning your tablet, your smartphone, your laptop will all lose their significance. Existence itself will exist within a thin film of supernumerary data that will suggest, push, and democratize.
If everything is “smart,” we will be able to talk to our robot and they will collect, categorize, and gather for us the things we demand and desire. Not just those things on the immediate surface, but the “new” things that have the possibility of enriching our lives.
Just as Amazon suggests, “People who have read this read this…,” personal robots will be enabled to print out clothing and baubles on the 3D printer, anticipate shopping, dry cleaning, play dates, summer camps, and date nights.
Most of all, social robots in the home, in particular, will have an unprecedented intimacy with brands.
Social robots that have built a trusted relationship with you will be able to suggest media, hard goods, soft goods, accessories, and foodstuffs to curate our lives with choices with the finely-tuned sensibility of a concierge or major domo.
Recommendations that come from “someone” you know, and who has made the investment in getting to know you. “Someone” who can make these suggestions with social grace and politeness in the flow of real-world life, as opposed to the unwanted popups, alerts and broadcasts that clutter our screens today.
There are even more possibilities we don’t yet comprehend, except that it will all be personalized, just for you. Only for you. Unmistakably, simply, happily for you.
It’s a good life if you can get it.