Monday, July 27, 2009
A couple of weeks ago, I was at a party. Specifically, a cheese party. And at this joyous union of human and curd, I noticed that my gracious hostess owned a cleaning robot — a real one, unlike my fictionalized concoction in the above comic. You've probably seen these robot vacuums before. They look like a sort of over-sized high-tech hockey puck. If it turned out one of the exotic wheels of cheese at the party was from outer-space, you'd naturally assume the vacuum was their ship.
At one point during the night, the robot was activated, and the little guy cheerily began his cleaning regimen. Now, if you're unfamiliar with how these marvels of science work, they zip about the room, following a virtual map that they create as they go along. They "learn" the dimensions of the room and all the places that they can and can't get to. Dogs do something similar, but rather than cleaning, they just sort of seek out the best spot to eat the wall.
Anyway, as I was saying, the cheesewheel spaceship starts up. And he doesn't make it more than a couple of inches before he runs into the feet of a party-goer. And he stops, presumably making a little note for himself on his virtual map. He turns and toddles off another couple of inches. Bump. Another party-goer. Another little note for himself. Turn, bump, note. Turn, bump, note. And at this point, you can see he's really losing confidence. Turn, bump. Turn, bump. Is this the same room? Turn, bump. The obstacles are moving! Turn, bump. I've been abducted!
Now he's visibly panicked. After a few more frenetic bumps and turns he manages to scoot under the coffee table, where he spends the next couple of minutes hiding and emitting occasional mechanized whirs and hums, rising desperately in pitch. A robot scream.
This, of course, is the side of robotics we never expect. We hear the term "robot" and picture these efficient, super-smart machines that will outperform us at every turn. But when you really interact with a robot, they come off as kind of pitiful. Interacting with a robot is a lot more like accommodating an enfeebled grandparent or mentally-challenged sibling than matching wits with an equal. You go to Chuck E. Cheese, and the animatronic band is performing to a completely empty room. That's really sad when you think about it. They don't even realize that their entire fan base left. The Pizza Time Players should be back in the studio, mixing their next album, or maybe each working on a solo project, or trekking across India in hopes of finding inner peace with an animatronic guru. But instead they stand there tragically and obliviously rocking on. It breaks your heart. They will never ever get signed.
On the bright side of all this, the grim Terminator-style future where robots hunt us like mice seems like a scenario I will never experience . Even should deadly robots arise in my lifetime, I feel confident that they will have weaknesses not unlike the cheesewheel spaceship. I should be able to just tiptoe out of the room quietly, unnoticed, while it mercilessly blasts a sawed-off shotgun into my floor lamp over and over and over and over...