Last week Amazon revealed how it is using robots. Did the company divulge a secret lab where humanoid machines made out of steel are slowly plotting to take over the planet? Hardly. The 320-pound, orange automatons from Kiva Systems (which Amazon acquired in 2012) move high, heavy shelves full of products closer to human employees, speeding up the time it takes to dispatch goods to customers.
Kiva’s robots look remarkably like steroid-enhanced versions of the vacuum-cleaning robot Roomba. Both Kiva and Roomba robots are essentially automation machines guided by software, compute and other sensors to move around and do tasks that humans would have previously done. This stands in stark contrast to what we expect: Real-life robots don’t look like humans or animals, and they certainly can’t wrest control away from the people using them.
Isaac Asimov dubbed our expectations and the resulting fear “the Frankenstein complex”: a fear of artificial human beings. In fiction and in movies, our exposure to robotics has been that drones/HAL/Terminator/RoboCop will replace humanity. And yet while Kiva’s robots and Roomba replace many human functions, they are nowhere near as threatening as those humanlike contraptions we associate with the word “robot.” They are doing what robots are supposed to do: repetitive jobs that humans don’t want. I wonder if the media portrayal of robots might be the core reason why we are so uncomfortable with the idea of robots.
I posed this question about cultural sentiments around robots to Adrian Canoso, the co-founder of Savioke, a Cupertino, Calif.–based company that is making a delivery robot for the service industry (he was also a speaker at the RoadMap conference in 2014). “With the lack of real world robots that we can use ourselves: see, touch, interact with, and be served by, our imagination will continue to run wild both with sentiments on how they can be detrimental or beneficial to our daily lives,” he wrote back in an email.
Adrian makes good points. Much of the time we are fearful of how technology will make us feel. Sara Watson recently wrote about the concept of the “uncanny valley,” pointing out that “technologies that are simultaneously familiar and alien evoke a sense of dread.” Robots as portrayed in popular culture are able to check both of those boxes. “We are scared,” I wrote recently, “because we will lose the illusion that we are making decisions that run our life.”
Canoso added, “Sure there are plenty of examples of vacuums and manufacturing robots but personal robotics is still very new and very much an emerging market. Not many people have gotten a chance to interact with a robot and even more, gotten a chance to benefit from their capabilities first-hand.” As we move deeper into the twenty-first century, the further automation of our society is a given, as is the proliferation of algorithm-based services and products. That means we will find ourselves face to face with a robot — if we haven’t already.
We think of robots as those things we have seen on the big screen, but in reality, simpler robots are around us. There are bots talking to bots, running our stock markets. Others automate processes like collecting data from smart meters, parking meters and light poles. Robots are already out there and are slowly inhabiting our world.
Nest co-founder and CEO Tony Fadell recently told me that in many ways the Nest thermostat is a robot, automating a lot of the process around temperature management (and perhaps soon climate management) inside our homes. And it does so with a calm, beautiful experience, with the result that we can appreciate its capabilities. Nest, Roomba, Dropcam — these are early examples of how automation can enhance our daily lives. These products are “shift[ing] sentiments in how robotics can also directly benefit everyday people,”Canoso commented. “Personal robotics is still wide open with tremendous progress finally taking shape.”
Fadell thinks that when it comes to technology that diverts us from our established behaviors, it is best to think of transition in baby steps. Humans will embrace this future if they get a sense that they (and not the machines) are in charge. Nest’s app, Roomba’s remote control or even a steering wheel on an autonomous car give us the feeling that we are still in control, slowly easing us into the future. Just like those 150,000 Kiva robots that are running around Amazon’s giant warehouse, helping us get our shopping fix, faster and faster.