Danger, Will Robinson!

July 24, 2009

While it’s very unfortunate that some people are losing their jobs, earlier this week I heard about a group that’s experiencing layoffs that I don’t feel so bad about: robots. Now I’m not normally prejudiced, but for some reason I make an exception in the case of robots. Better one of them than one of us, right? And what exactly have robots done for us, besides do complex, dangerous jobs, and even do jobs that couldn’t be done by humans? I mean, really, what have they done? When I was a kid I was pretty excited about the future which, according to all the science fiction I read, would be filled with robots. They’d be everywhere, walking around, having conversations with us, occasionally going berserk and killing large numbers of people for no reason. It sounded like huge fun. Admittedly it depended on what science fiction I was reading or watching at the time. Predictions varied. According to some we’d have flying cars and underwater colonies by now, while others predicted we’d be digging ourselves out of the rubble left by worldwide nuclear war.

Still others predicted that by 2009 we’d be very close to sending the first humans to the Moon. They all agreed on the robots, though. Sure, every robot had its limitations. For instance there’s R2D2, who can do anything except speak English, or Robby The Robot, who can do anything except run. Or climb stairs. Or scratch his own back. And then there was The Terminator, a robot that could travel through time and take a hundred bullets from the chest, but couldn’t save California from bankruptcy. I even remember a time when it seemed like the robot revolution might actually happen. I remember reading an article at about the same time I was destroying my brain with science fiction about a guy who’d built his own personal robot. It was about five feet tall and humanoid, although it rolled around on wheels, and it could vacuum his den. Sort of. I’m pretty sure it couldn’t handle the nozzle attachment to get into the tight corners and behind chairs, and the guy had to sit there and work a remote control to guide the robot around. Hey, if you’re going to go to that much trouble, why not just vacuum the den yourself? I guess the downside of vacuuming the den yourself is it puts a robot out of a job.

Still, in spite of all the progress they’ve made, it looks like most robots are a long way away from mastering such complicated jobs as walking. And yet I can’t help feeling sorry for them and thinking maybe I should overcome my anti-robot prejudice, at least as far as the job market is concerned. Sure, robots have taken some jobs away from humans, but humans have taken plenty of jobs away from robots, especially in the entertainment industry. The aforementioned R2D2, Robby, and the Terminator are just a few, along with Gort, Marvin, and that creepy-looking Maria from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. And also I’m pretty sure that robot revolution–the one where robots completely take over and make us their servants–is coming eventually. Probably about the same time we manage to put the first humans on the Moon.

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