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Introduction > Robots: Fantasy Versus Reality

Robots: Fantasy Versus Reality

As this book and my reminiscences illustrate, there is often a great disparity between the dreams we have of robots—what they should be capable of—and their far more earthbound reality. Anyone who’s both a technologist (whether a pro or an amateur) and a techno-romantic (one who dreams of a future made better by smarter machines and smarter people) must come to terms with this discrepancy and enjoy real robots for what they are (while continuing to be inspired by sci-fi visions of what they might become).

Science fiction has become the myth-making machinery of our age. Where cultures of old looked to their pasts to find heroes and golden ages to inspire them, we tend to look to our future. Ask a group of children what lessons are to be learned from Icarus or Midas, and they’ll likely tell you little, except maybe that at Midas, you’re not going to pay a lot for that muffler. Now ask them what they can tell you about Yoda and The Force, or what assimilation by the Borg means. You’ll likely hear more than you bargained for. Right smack in the middle of these futuristic myths and morality tales stand robots: Lt. Commander Data, C-3PO, R2-D2, the Terminator, RoboCop, the B-9 from Lost in Space, Robby from Fantastic Planet. All of these robots have become part of our collective consciousness, our culture, and our modern mythology.

Humans have dreamt of creating humanoid companions for longer than you might think. The Greek poet Homer described mechanical maidens cast in gold by Hephaestus, Greek god of metalsmiths. The Hebrews had the Golem, a man-servant created from clay and animated by Kabalistic magic. Leonardo da Vinci even sketched out plans for a mechanical man in the fifteenth century. In many early tales of automata, as in numerous modern robot stories, things usually went horribly wrong, probably owing to human guilt and fear over playing God. This guilt reached a peak in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when science and technology became the animating forces breathing life into bots (where magic had usually been before). It was perhaps the fact that technology and science made the creation of such creatures so possible, so within our grasp, that led to the nightmarish visions of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Karel Capek’s play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), and the 1927 Fritz Lang film Metropolis. These disturbed visions of robots were also influenced by the encroachment of science and industrialism in general, and the fear that its machinery threatened to overwhelm our humanity. As the twentieth century wore on, and technology became an increasingly essential and accepted part of our lives, many of the robots in sci-fi became more benign. Robots became steadfast companions (B-9), helpers of humanity (C-3PO, R2-D2), even our equals (Lt. Commander Data).

This growing comfort level with machines and machine intelligence might have done wonders for our improved relations with robots of the fictional kind, but it has had some negative effects on real-world robotics. In a word, it’s made them dull by comparison (at least to the general public). Kids fed a steady diet of Saturday morning cartoons of building-size mech-warriors, sci-fi films and TV shows, video games, comic books, and other media, don’t have much patience with the temperamental, decidedly dumb bots of today. I’ve seen this in my own home. When we get a new robot, my son is obsessed with it, but only for a few days, a week at the most.

When we got the Probotics Cye robot a few years ago (a two-wheeled bot with a cart and a vacuum attachment), he did nothing for about five days but play with it and teach it (using a map-based teaching tool wirelessly connected from a laptop to the robot). He had big plans for how it was going to serve us dinner and haul our dishes back to the kitchen every night. After creating a “CyeServe” routine (that would deliver food in Cye’s cart from the kitchen to the family room), he tried for several nights to work the bugs out (until we just got up and retrieved our rapidly cooling dinners from wherever Cye had gotten himself stuck).

Frustrated and bored, he soon went back to drawing robots that do what they’re told, watching them in the media, and constructing them on paper for role-playing games. I don’t know that he would act any differently if he didn’t have a fantasy world of robots to retreat to, but I’m sure it doesn’t help. I can see in his eyes the disappointment in comparing real world robots with ones inside his head, and I recognize it as my own—that kid inside me that still struggles with the same disparity.

In the ’80s and ’90s, while exciting new robot stories were finding their way into all forms of media through the franchised fantasies of Star Trek, Star Wars, The Terminator, and other blockbusters, a quiet revolution was going on in the halls of academe and on research laboratory benches. Roboticists were rethinking the basic assumptions of what constitutes a robot, machine intelligence, means of mobility, and other issues with which such engineers must wrestle. In many areas of science, looking to biology for design inspiration was becoming fashionable, and robotics was no exception. Soon, the idea of gold-plated humanoids with English accents and persnickety dispositions gave way to far more bizarre visions of dung beetle—like insectoid bots that scuttle under furniture and wrangle your dust bunnies, squirmy snake-like robots that can wriggle into sewers and through rubble, even robotic fish (modeled on the tuna) that can swim the world’s oceans collecting scientific data. A weird thing happened. While fictional robots continued to get more and more fantastic (culminating in 1999’s The Matrix, in which robots take over the world and use humans as their batteries), real-world robots were becoming smaller, faster, cheaper, and better.

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