So, What Exactly Does Our Robot Future Look Like?
On Robots as Domestic Workers, Companions, and Caretakers
While robots have made significant inroads into industry and elsewhere, they are just starting to make their way into the high-tech home. Robots in domestic service is a common feature of visions of the future—from The Jetsons Rosey the Robot to the more somber David from Prometheus—but so far these visions have not been realized.
When we think of robots in the home today, the first thing that comes to mind is Roomba—a small robot that roams around the house and vacuums up dirt—which is a far cry from a robot butler. Variations on Roomba for cleaning windows or trimming the lawns are also currently available.
There are other products intended for the home that are mainly gimmicky, such as a small humanoid robot called Lynx that acts as your interface with Alexa (an audio connection to the web or control of linked home devices). It doesn’t do anything Alexa can’t do, but it can move and express emotion. Similarly, there is Enbo, which is a mobile robot but also is just a screen for accessing the internet or home devices. Yet there are no home robots that can move around and interact with the house in any meaningful way.
Perhaps the primary reason for the slowness of adopting home robots is safety. Modern robots are mostly not designed for the home, which generally has a lot more delicate and breakable things than a factory floor, including kids and pets. Imagine the inevitable lawsuits from having an industrial-style robot in the home and the crazy things people would do with it.
Another way to look at this issue is that factories represent a very controlled environment, one that can be co-adapted with robots, and where robots would have a predictable and defined set of tasks. The home, by contrast, can be a very chaotic and unpredictable environment, optimized for human comfort and use. Domestic tasks can be varied and require extreme adaptability. Robots are therefore just much better suited for the factory floor.
As robotic technology advances, however, the barriers to having robots working in the home are diminishing. The advent of soft robots will help. This will increase the number of things that such robots can safely interact with, including people. Advancing AI will also help home robots navigate the home and complete domestic tasks. Advanced robots currently have impressive mobility and dexterity, but this needs to become available at the consumer level.
It also may be premature to envision all-purpose butler robots for the near future. Rather, robots optimized for specific but limited tasks may be the path forward for now. For example, robotic arms in the kitchen may be able to help with cooking tasks and even be able to complete entire recipes on their own. Meanwhile, another dedicated robot may be able to handle the laundry, including cleaning, ironing, folding, and sorting.
When you think about it, robots need a fairly high level of sophistication to complete even the simplest domestic task on their own. Even putting away the dishes requires a delicate touch and the ability to visually inspect and interact with the environment. At what point would you trust your fine china to a robot?
Eventually we will get there, but I think this one will take much longer than most futurists have imagined. Not only will such robots have to be highly advanced, but they must also be cost-effective compared to doing simple tasks yourself or just hiring someone to do it.
This is a good time to remember one of the more common futurist fallacies and realize that we will not do something using advanced technology simply because we can. Robot butlers seem like a no-brainer at first, but are they? Until they become advanced, relatively reliable, and inexpensive, I suspect we will continue to do domestic chores ourselves (just with better appliances and tools) or with the help of narrow function robots.
While robots may not be working in the home anytime soon, they may find a role as a robotic companion, or even caretaker. Here the demands on the robot would be much different. Their main func- tion would be to make humans more comfortable and happier, and perhaps perform communication-related tasks.
Imagine a robotic pet. There are many potential advantages. We already have the technology to make robotic dogs that can get around difficult terrain on four legs. Simulating the behavior of an animal wouldn’t be challenging even for today’s AI. Such behavioral software can learn and adapt to the owner or other household mem- bers and can be programmable with a number of behavioral options, from frisky to calm.
As the engineering and technology advances, a robot pet will become cuddlier and more adorable, and less menacing. Robotic pets won’t have to be walked, won’t pee on the carpet, or sharpen their claws on your new leather couch. You won’t have to feed them— just plug them in at night, or perhaps they can just “sleep” on their recharging mat.
Such a pet could have built-in practical functions as well. They can be a mobile nanny cam, smoke detector, burglar alarm and deterrent, and be useful for overall security. Such pets could also be excellent companions for those living alone, in addition to all the communication and security features. They can also keep an eye on people who are impaired in some way. You would easily be able to control them through your portable smart device, see what their eye-cameras see, and communicate through built-in speakers. They can be programmed to contact the police or emergency services when needed. They may become an indispensable home appliance.
You also won’t be limited to mimicking living animals. You could have fantasy animals like small dragons or griffins. Or, if you prefer, cute robots that don’t mimic animals at all, or droids like R2-D2.
If you are wondering whether people will accept robotic pets, neuroscience already provides an answer. The human brain is wired to assign agency to anything that moves in a way that indicates it is alive (technically in a non-inertial frame—so not accounted for by gravity and inertia alone, which means they are moving under their own power). Once our brain decides that an object in our environment is an agent, it assigns emotional significance to it by linking to the limbic system—the emotional centers in our brain.
In other words, if something acts alive, you will react to it as if it is alive, with the full suite of emotions even if you intellectually know that it is “ just a machine.” This applies to humaniform robots as well. Isaac Asimov coined the term “humaniform” to refer to robots that are not only humanoid, with a head, two arms, and two legs, but that are also designed to look fully human.
This leads to another form of companion robot that goes beyond a pet, but one that has a relationship more like a friend, family member, or even therapist. These robots would likely be controlled by AI to at least have sophisticated chat-bot functions. They will be great listeners and reflect back with comforting observations and thoughts (or the illusion of such).
Advanced models with medical features may be able to act as assistants, helping those with difficulty walking, even just as an arm to hold on to. They could call emergency services or provide first- line care, such as injecting epinephrine in the case of anaphylactic shock. They can be someone’s eyes or ears, helping those with dementia maintain their independence for much longer.
Of course, when we talk about companion robots, we cannot avoid the topic of sex robots. In fact, the beginnings of this technology already exist. There is a thriving industry of realistic silicon (or similar material) dolls designed as sexual companions. Some of the companies making these dolls have already announced their plans to add robotic features to future models, so that they can be more responsive, both verbally and physically.
We are on a path to fully functioning sexbots, with incremental advances over time. At some point the technology will progress so that, for a reasonable price, most people could afford a sexbot companion that is sufficiently realistic and functional to provide an exceptional experience. This is an easy prediction—not only will this happen, but it is already happening.
The real question is, what will the effect be on relationships and society? As there will not be one uniform response but many responses to this technology, the question then becomes a matter of proportion. How many people will choose a robotic sex companion over a human one? How will this choice be affected by factors like age and financial resources, as well as sex, gender, and sexual preferences? How will the use of sex robots be accepted by human partners?
In a 2018 Forbes article by science journalist Andrea Morris, she argues that sex robots will be the “Most Disruptive Technology We Didn’t See Coming.” However, it’s hard to argue we didn’t anticipate it. Sexbots have been a staple of science fiction for almost as long as there’s been science fiction. The 1987 movie Cherry 2000 features a man on a mission to find a computer chip to fix his robotic “wife.” In the 2001 movie A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Jude Law plays a male version of the pleasure bot. Westworld is essentially about a theme park populated with robots whose primary function (let’s face it) is to serve as sex robots.
Sex dolls go back even further. In the sixteenth century, lonely sailors fashioned sex toys out of cloth and leather. The 1960s saw the dawn of inflatable sex dolls. And today we have the silicon version in RealDolls and similar products.
There are those who will take moral issue with sexbots, and those with ethical concerns about objectification, but that has never been enough to stop any sex industry. In fact, one might argue that the availability of non-sentient sexbots might reduce human sex trafficking and exploitation.
Ethical concerns aside, what will the impact be on human relations? Like many technologies we discuss, there is the temptation to get lost in a world designed for your own pleasure and convenience. It is possible that sexbots at first will mostly appeal to those who have difficulty with human relationships. They will be the early adopters but will pave the way for greater acceptance. There may be some amount of shame associated with using sexbots, the implication being that you cannot handle the complexities and challenges of an intimate human relationship, and in some cases that might be fair. It is also very probable that use of sexbots will become normalized, and just be another thing that people do to supplement their sex lives.
The ultimate effects will likely be as varied as human relation- ships are, and this makes it difficult to predict exactly how disruptive the technology will actually be. The same is true of robots in general—our world will have to adapt and evolve to include a greater and greater presence of robots. They will spread out of the factory and into the world, increasingly involved in every aspect of our lives.
In the far future, robotic technology will benefit from other developments discussed in this book, with robots evolving into super-advanced cybermorphic beings with unimaginable abilities, transcending anything in the biological realm.It is very probable that use of sexbots will become normalized, and just be another thing that people do to supplement their sex lives.
It is no wonder, then, that with the convenience robots can pro- vide comes the looming fear that they will replace us or even destroy us. The robot apocalypse is a common theme in science fiction because it speaks to a basic fear and anxiety. Creatures that look like us but are not quite us will take our mates, take our jobs, and even- tually come to take our lives. This fear extends beyond robots, but perhaps robots are the ultimate expression of xenophobia.
Ultimately this fear is largely irrational. We will build our robotic future, and we will be inextricably enmeshed with our future robots. They will become part of our civilization.
Further, when we talk about a “robot uprising,” we are really referring to an AI uprising. The problem is never the robots themselves, but the independent general AIs that control them. In fact, the same love-hate relationship exists for imagining the future of AI and quantum computing, which can help deliver a technological utopia or destroy everything.
Excerpted from the book The Skeptics’ Guide to the Future: What Yesterday’s Science and Science-Fiction Tell Us About the World of Tomorrow by Dr. Steven Novella, with Bob Novella and Jay Novella. Copyright © 2022 by SGU Productions, Inc. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.