Thursday, August 11, 2011

Robot Companions

Speaking of cyborgs, the August NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC contains an article on robots, with pictures:


The article explores robots designed for flexible behavior in uncontrolled environments, as opposed to the kind of factory robot that performs one job in a circumscribed, changeless setting. People are trying to teach machines to do things that are easy for us but hard for them, such as walk across a room or pick up a glass (or, as Steven Pinker discusses in THE LANGUAGE INSTINCT, carry on a natural conversation). A perfected robot of this kind would be able to serve as an aide to an infirm person, for example. In Japan a "cuddly baby seal" machine is already being used to entertain elderly nursing home residents.

Should humanoid robots try to pass for human? Do we want true androids, or would a housekeeping robot (for example) be more acceptable if purely functional instead of resembling an advanced version of the maid in THE JETSONS? The article introduces Yume (also built in Japan, not surprisingly), a feminine robot being developed for realism in both appearance and behavior. She's not there yet. The "uncanny valley," the visual space where a robot or a CGI character looks almost real but not quite and therefore inspires uneasiness in most people, hasn't been leaped over yet.

Years ago I saw a TV movie about a future in which childbearing has been banned for thirty years as a population-control measure. Couples can buy robot infants in baby stores. The artificial "babies" in this film look blatantly like talking dolls. I'm sure today's technology could do better, but how many people would want a robot child, even as a last resort? I haven't seen that movie about the robot boy rejected by his adopted parents, but from the reviews I gather the experience was traumatic. Robot pets, on the other hand—they already exist as toys, and even with today's technology a fairly convincing cybernetic dog or cat could be constructed. Compared to letting our St. Bernard out in the rain or snow and cleaning him up when he comes in, the idea of a walking-optional dog has its appeal. Still, I wouldn't want to live in a world like that of DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP?, with all natural animals replaced by artificial ones.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt


  1. Cool! I wrote a short story called "Data" about a robotic caretaker - looks like it's become/becoming a reality! It has its good points and bad points, but I think it will happen whether we like it or not.

  2. Remember Ray Bradbury's story, published a LONG time ago, about a robot "grandmother"? The motherless children she cared for got very attached to her. Yes, it will probably come someday.

    Suzette Haden Elgin wrote a delightful poem about robot caretakers for elderly people, in which the androids were so realistic their owners (or employers) came to think of them as people. When the robot broke down or became obsolete, the old ladies expressed horror at the idea of discarding a faithful attendant "just because she's old." Therefore, the next generation of housekeeping robots "looks exactly like a broom."

  3. Although I write about androids in many formats in my books, I'm extremely uneasy about the entire concept. Asimo gives me the willies. I saw a video of a giant robot that interacted with a crowd in an entertainment complex. The fact that a man was inside it didn't make me feel any more comfortable. That valley of unease is a gorge for me. Odd that I can write them, but don't even like the idea of a robotic vacuum cleaner. I recall an automaton of President Lincoln at Disney World many years ago. When it stood, I almost got up and ran. I stayed, but except for the fact that it gave the Gettysburg Address, I couldn't have told you what it said. I was too fascinated / horrified watching it to note much else. Just for the record, clowns and mascots are no-nos as well.