So, Where’s My Robot?

Thoughts on Social Machine Learning

Greater than Fiction

forbes great moments“Robots are about to be unshackled from forced labor. Expect them everywhere.”, Forbes article 8-18-06
Every so often you see an article in the news like this one from Forbes: “The Robots are Coming!“, or this one in the latest Popular Science. They tout statistics about the $6 billion robotics industry, and projections like “7 million service robots will be sold by 2008”, and they highlight some of the latest and greatest robotics research.
As a companion to the Forbes article they have a “25 Great Moments in Robotics History”, and when I see lists like these it makes me think that robotics, more than other technology domains, has some big ficticious shoes to fill. One third of the great moments (8 of the 25 moments) are works of fiction: Pinocchio (1881), Tin Man in Wizard of Oz (1900), R.U.R. (1921), Metropolis (1926), Asimov’s Runaround (1942), Rosie in The Jetsons (1962), HAL 9000 (1968), R2-D2 and C-3PO in Star Wars (1977).

People already have expectations about robots, and more often than not I bet people believe that robots seen in movies are actually as sophisticated as they seem. Even if people don’t really believe that robots should already be as sophisticated as R2-D2, there is this strange blurring of fact and fiction in the history of robotics.

Now I’m not disagreeing that R2-D2 or HAL should be considered important moments in robotics history. Even the robot Hall of Fame at CMU has both real and ficticious robots. I just think that it is interesting to step back and ask why we put them there.

These works of fiction are important to us as a society because they help to define our developing relationship with technology. Particularly as man and machine become increasingly intertwined in the modern world, these ficticious robot characters let us think and talk about how we would like our relationship with technology to be.

So what should technologists take from this message? Well, at least one thing is clear. People expect to be able to interact with an advanced technology like a robot in a social and collaborative manner. Many of the robot characters in fiction are much more like a partner than a tool to be commanded. And most importantly, this isn’t really an expectation that can be changed. The robots of the future have already been envisioned and already exist as part of the history of robotics. So, in many ways roboticists are challenged to develop something greater than fiction!

September 4th, 2006 Posted by | In the News | 2 comments

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