The robot revolution is here.

Author:Mangu-Ward, Katherine
Position:Column
 
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They're sweeping my floors, watching my kids, and stealing my job. Here's why I'm not worried.

The shiny white robot has a stooped, almost deferential stance as it approaches the Honda employees seated around a table. It turns its black faceplate to the humans, makes an open-handed gesture, and asks if they want anything to drink.

The people all speak simultaneously. What initially seems like rudeness turns out to be efficiency: ASIMO, the most advanced humanoid robot on the market, can understand multiple voices at once and uses facial recognition software to match the men with their requests. "Oolong tea, Mr. Ohara?" "Coffee, Mr. Oga?" "Milk tea, Mr. Ariizumi?" it confirms. They nod, and ASIMO heads off to fill the orders.

So far, ASIMO--at least as seen in a 2014 segment on Japanese public television--appears rather more competent than the baristas at my local Starbucks, who frequently ask me to repeat my order and haven't a clue who I am, despite my semi-regular appearances at the same location for the last six years. But as ASIMO walks away to pick up the drinks, it's apparent that there's much work ahead for Honda's engineers. The gait of the hobbit-sized machine is slow, with the knees-bent, elbows-out posture of a cautious toddler on unfamiliar turf. Honda claims that ASIMO (an acronym for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility, not a deliberate tribute to the science fiction novelist Isaac Asimov, the company insists) comes equipped with a collision avoidance system, but that too is on par with a 2-year-old--everything is fine when nearby people are moving slowly and making allowances for the fledgling hot, but Mr. Ohara, Mr. Oga, and Mr. Ariizumi would be very thirsty indeed if they trusted ASIMO to pick up their drinks and carry them down a busy city street at rush hour.

Watching Honda's latest shuffle along creates a kind of vertigo. The robot revolution seems simultaneously upon us--look, a real robot serving coffee!--and eons away. But that dissonance is a clue that we are nesded in the elbow of an exponential curve. All around us, a Cambrian explosion of robotics is taking place, writes Peter Diamandis, chairman of the X Prize Foundation, at Singularity Hub, "with species of all sizes, shapes and modes of mobility crawling out of the muck of the lab and onto the terra firma of the marketplace, about to enter your home and your shopping experience."

Diamandis is right. Your house, neighborhood, and office are already full of the robots humanity has been waiting for with both anticipation and dread. They may be the equivalent of trilobites now, but they're multiplying and mutating rapidly. While pessimists fret that a new kind of intelligent automation will mean social, economic, and political upheaval, the fact is that the robots are already here and the humans are doing what we have always done in the face of change: anticipating and adapting where we can, muddling through where we can't, and trying to enjoy the ride.

Domo Arigato, Mr. Roomba

When it comes to prognostications about the robot revolution--and for the purposes of this article, we'll take an expansive view of what constitutes a robot, lumping together a wide variety of automated digital and mechanical deputies--Roombas are frequently asked to shoulder more than their fair share of the burden. Semiautonomous vacuums are the most visible robots on the market, with more than 10 million sold worldwide at the end of last year. They look like the devices science fiction told us to expect: standalone machines that perform tasks on behalf of human beings, integrated into everyday life.

But if we're being honest, they're also a bit of a letdown. Anyone willing to fork over a few hundred bucks to the iRobot Corporation can have a machine zip out from under his sofa-- that's where mine lives, anyway--and vacuum his house from time to time. It's oddly hypnotic to watch the device in action, as it deftly avoids falling down stairs, extricates itself from rug tassels and tight spots, and handily routes around chair legs. But it's just a vacuum cleaner, after all: a slightly smarter version of the dishwashers, washing machines, and microwaves we take for granted. And like ASIMO, the Roomba seems remarkably capable at some tasks and astonishingly inept at others, as when it accidentally bumps the door of the bathroom closed and then bounces around for hours, mindlessly cleaning the same tiny space until its battery dies.

Then there's the matter of the human maintenance required by our robot servants. The Roomba will go find its charging station when it needs more power (unless it's locked in the half bath, of course). But it requires a person to empty the reservoir when it's full of dirt and to periodically clean the moving parts. I'm terrible at taking care of my Roomba--I haven't changed the filters, well, ever--which generates a vague sense of...

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