Out of warrens in the wall, tiny robot mice darted. The rooms were acrawl with the small cleaning animals, all rubber and metal. They thudded against chairs, whirling their mustached runners, kneading the rug nap, sucking gently at hidden dust. Then, like mysterious invaders, they popped into their burrows. Their pink electric eyes faded. The house was clean.”
“There Will Come Soft Rains”
The Martian Chronicles
If you’re around my age, you grew up watching The Jetsons. Wasn’t it cool? All those robots doing the mundane house work. They even had a maid that was a robot. She rolled, she talked, she dusted and she even cooked sometimes! I couldn’t wait until we got some of that stuff in our house. Then my mother told me that it was just a cartoon and robots weren’t real. But she was so wrong.
Many people view the robot as the type of machine seen on The Jetsons, the maid who rolled up to the front door and answered it for the family. Well, there’s more to robots than that. My mother didn’t realize that her kitchen was loaded with robots, they just didn’t look like people is all.
Let us begin with the humble toaster; that item which for decades has presented us with our morning toast, perfectly golden on both sides every time and brought to you by the servomechanism that powers the little breakfast-making robot. Those of you lucky enough to have a dishwasher enjoy the services of another kitchen servo, in fact most of the kitchen appliances you have today are the earliest robots and they’ve been around since the late 19th century. Toasters celebrated 100 years of existence in 1993 and many people don’t even realize it. It’s a fact. Crompton and Company in Leeds, England presented the first toaster in 1893. GE didn’t present a patent on their first toaster until 1909. A toast lover named Charles Strite gave us the first pop-up toaster in 1919 and in 1925 the Waters Genter Company gave the household its first popup toaster that toasted both sides of the bread simultaneously, timed the process and kicked it out when it was done. Who knew?
They weren’t called robots. They weren’t even thought of as robots. A case could be made that they’re not robots because they need people to put the toast in and hit the on button and robots should be able to do that without help. But the fact is, they do the stuff we don’t want to do without limited input from us.
The term robot comes from the Czech word robota (meaning compulsory labor) and was introduced into the language by the writer Karel Čapek in his 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). While the verb robotovat (meaning to slave) has been in use in the Czech language for centuries, the story goes that Karel’s brother and fellow writer Josef coined the term so common today.
Since we’re in the basic history of the robot, and I know there will be science fiction fans reading this, let me go ahead and mention that while household robots have been helping out for over a hundred years (and I had to dig around to find this information, believe me), they were conceived of as early as 450 BC. The Greek math geek Archytas of Tarentum, had an idea for a steam-powered bird. He called it The Pigeon. There may have been earlier concepts as well but I haven’t found them.
The bottom line here folks is that human beings are lazy and easily bored, so from ’way back when all the way up to today, we’ve dreamed of something that will do the boring stuff for us so we can have more time to play. A culture of Unicorns are we. Now this isn’t stated to make you feel bad, quite the contrary! It simply is noted to show that we humans have been this way for millennia. The basic desire to not labor at the mundane is in all of us and will no doubt always be. But I digress.
If you’re a science fiction fan, you know that Ray Bradbury had his house cleaning mice make their debut in Colliers in 1950. “There Will Come Soft Rains” is one of the most famous of Bradbury’s short stories and is also included in his novel The Martian Chronicles of the same year. The story takes place in August 2026 and follows the story of a California house that prepares meals, announces daily plans and cleans & dusts even though the family that lived there were long before vaporized in a nuclear war, their silhouettes still visible on the outside of the house: a chilling consideration but with the typical whimsy of Bradbury, delightful robots to spark the imagination of housewives the world over.
Well, it took until 2006, but those mice have finally made their way into the “average American household.” The Roomba has arrived. It’s not a mouse, but it’s small and round and thumps the chairs and kneads the rug nap and eliminates all the dust and crumbs before going back to its perch, somewhere in a corner behind the couch. I want one.
“Yes, but they’re still not real robots,” I hear you mutter. Again we come back to the human-looking robots of our collective imagination. You’re referring to Lost In Space’s fellow who roamed distant planets, waving its arms and bellowing “Danger Will Robinson!” Bob May fans stand up and cheer. Or perhaps you prefer Robby, or Gort and even Star Trek’s Data. I’m a Gort fan myself. So let us briefly explore the humanoid robot.
A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
The Three Laws of Robotics
Well, that’s one man’s idea. A good one I might add. I thoroughly enjoy Asimov’s crowd, even when they develop artificial intelligence and run amok. It happens. Look at Frankenstein. Granted, his monster wasn’t a robot but in many ways he acted like one. Stiff movements, responding dumbly to basic commands indeed he could have been a model for the science fiction of the 20th century in his growing intelligence and hasty and foolish use of same. He wound up being smarter than his maker and decided they should both cease to exist. Obviously Frankenstein’s monster hadn’t read Asimov.
Back to the real robots you all want to talk about. They’re here. They’re not in every household, but they’re here. Enter “The Million Dollar Man.” We have the technology. Before we get into prosthetics, I simply have to tell you to check out Honda’s humanoid robot. They call it Asimo, and no, they didn’t name it for Asimov (that’s what they say). The name is an acronym for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility. It’s pronounced ashimo in Japanese and I am told that this word means “legs also.” Go online and check it out. It’s a cool little dude and apparently there are eleven of these characters roaming around. Honda started building them in 1986.
Where was I? Oh yes! We have the technology. I’m talking about prosthetics. Not the rubber noses you find backstage in various theatres the world over, I mean the mechanical arms and legs that are making normal life possible for so many folks who by accident or war have lost limbs that a hundred years ago or less would never be able to be replaced. But are they robots?
For this information I tapped my friend Victor White. He’s a robot maven and further cred is that fact that he works for JPL. So while Victor claims that he’s “always willing to prattle aimlessly on topics like that” he also insists, “I stress never to take me too seriously, and consider it a marginally well informed opinion.” Having grown up in a household where the father was a physicist, I know this means that he knows what he’s talking about, but things change daily so by the time you read this article everything could be out of date. Okay Victor. I’ll take your margin to the bank.
In a fairly brief Saturday afternoon discussion, White informed me that while prosthetic limbs used robotic technology, they aren’t really robots. A robot stands alone. If you could take a prosthetic hand off and have it stroll around the house like The Addams Family’s Thing, well… that might be a robot, but otherwise, no.
Victor has a varied life and while he does work for JPL, in this interview he does not represent JPL or NASA. He’s talking to me about one of his personal passions on a strictly informal basis. During our chat, he told me the story of two people he’s met, both with prosthetic limbs.
“I’ve talked to people who have prosthetic limbs, and they’re surprisingly real. I remember once, about a year ago, hanging out with a woman who had a fake arm, and she could do whatever she wanted with it. I mean she could grab a Diet Pepsi and chug away on it; and she had a fake arm from about the elbow down. It has this electronic skeleton/frame with electric motors in there and a beautiful, life-like rubber on the outside and sensors that tie in to some muscles on the surface. She learned to train those muscles to train the sensors to talk to her own body. Sadly, the world of prosthetic limbs is undergoing tremendous amounts of progress ever since Bush launched the Iraq War.
We have thousands of guys and gals coming back without large pieces of their bodies, and they’re relatively young and want to go through life as normally as possible. Anyway, this lady was at a show, hawking her prosthetic limb company, and she was saying that one of the guys there that works at the company has a fake arm kind of like she does. Now you know the technology on these prosthetic arms is pretty primitive. Her robotic arm looks like a normal arm, and she has mastered using it, but her co-worker, who’s a bit of a geek, had a robotic arm which was designed to hold a screwdriver. It had little pincers at the end and what it could do, which was spectacular, was it could just spin around like an electric drill! So imagine a robotic hand that does that. That is so cool! But the best part is that people are having fun with it. That’s a beautiful thing.”
He then told me about actual robots that can interact with people, respond to them and carry on conversations. They’re out there. He’s seen them. Don’t we all wish we worked at someplace where we could play with this sort of thing? But don’t let me mislead you. These things aren’t lurking at JPL. This is a whole other group. I asked Victor if he’d checked out Asimo. He had and with only minor prodding, Victor then told me about Albert and Phil.
He asked me if I’d seen “the little Korean cyborg with Albert Einstein’s head.” I admitted ignorance and so he set to work educating me on what I’d been missing.
“It’s gotten a lot of good international press. This Korean company built a Honda style robot and they wanted it to look different from that (Asimo) and what they did was give this little start up that we have, a small contract to make an interactive, expressive, Albert Einstein head. And, you know, Albert wasn’t quite as good as the Philip K. Dick robot, which was out about two years ago—but Albert was beautiful because he has this disconcertingly, extremely realistic looking Einstein head, a bad fake German accent and is a fully autonomous Korean robot.
The Philip K. Dick one was—well it’s like this. Dick doesn’t want to just die and rot in the ground. He wants to take his soul, or whatever, and translate it into a computer and achieve immortality. In a nutshell, he wants to help develop technology so he doesn’t have to die. So the logical thing to do is create a robot that can understand you, what you’re saying—figure out what you’re saying and respond accordingly—and download yourself into it. For example, when you go to Google and type in something and do some research, you could have a whole database or equation for what’s out there and you get a response. You can use it to look at someone’s collected writings, and in this case it is Philip K. Dick—who wrote an awful lot of really bizarre stuff—so basically they took this whole text and downloaded it and partially analyzed it and use a Google-like interface to talk to it. You could ask it a question, it would respond in this really bizarre way, and there are actually interviews out there with this robot.
Every year, Wired magazine has a technology festival and a year and a half ago they had this Philip K. Dick robot there and they had a fake living room decked out—complete with 70s furniture—where you could come in and sit down with the robot and talk to him. He’d look around at you, establish eye contact—it was pretty well done; cutting edge technology. So I remember asking the robot a simple question. And my question to the robot was “How old are you?” I thought that was pretty clever. The robot thought about it for awhile, and his response to me was—he was looking at my, into my eyes—“Is that a trick question?” Now, you know, that’s about as good as you can get for that sort of a situation. I was very impressed with that.”
I wanted to confirm that this was a robot that was responding to voice and not programmed with answers. He assured me it was not. I asked if it actually looked like Philip K. Dick and Victor said, “Yeah, except he had the top of his head missing and there were all these gears and stuff.” I couldn’t resist, and during the interview with Victor, I ‘Googled’ Philip K. Dick and sure enough, there on the internet was a photo of a journalist interviewing the robot with the top of his head missing!
Then the sad truth came out about how Phil was lost. Dick’s novel A Scanner Darkly was turned into a movie a year or so ago. Victor felt “it never quite caught on because it was too weird and a lot of people didn’t like the animation.” His nutshell reprise of the Case of the Missing Robot goes as follows: “David Hanson, who is the inspiration for this company (Hanson Robotics)—I’m sort of a chief technical person I guess you’d say—was meeting with a Hollywood executive here in LA. He flew in from Texas and brought the robot along to try to get him on Leno or something. They were going to have an interview with the robot as a promo for the movie. What happened was, he left the robot head on the plane and it flew on to Salt Lake City or someplace.
And of course he immediately called the airline and they said they had the head and would get it back to him. But then it disappeared after that. So this robot head which cost about $50,000 is now missing, and that kind of screwed up the interview. It got written up in the New York Times and such—got quite a bit of press. So that was that.”
A sad end, but with Phil gone, Hanson has turned his amazing brain to other things. According to White, “he’s doing a start-up right now and trying to develop intelligent little robotic toys for kids where the toy will have a brain, understand the child, maybe learn a few quirks about the child and interact with it appropriately. So that’s David Hanson.”
And so it’s true that we don’t have these guys hanging around the house yet. There are a scant few robots that can hold interviews, but not a pot or a pan to any real effect. The Roomba is hardly Star Trek’s Data, or The Terminator or even Bradbury’s dust-sucking mice. We may have a lot of “Million Dollar” men, women and kids and maybe even dogs for real someday, but they’re not robots. There’s a long way to go yet before The Jetsons really are real, but we’re getting closer every day and by the time our kids are all grown up, they’re going to be laughing at the primitive Roomba as their cyborg prepares the evening meal and gets the kids ready for bed.
Or maybe not.