A listener who called in to a radio talk show I recently appeared on told me that he was an engineer who had lost three jobs to robots over the years. He was angry, looking for solutions to the “robots taking over the world” problem. What I kept thinking, as he talked, was that he must not be a particularly good engineer if a robot could replace him.
I had just devoted six years, off and on, to being immersed at a prestigious robotics institute, watching geeks with both engineering and Artificial Intelligence backgrounds imagine, invent, build and program robots from start to finish—from idea to implementation. The product of my research, a book titled “Almost Human: Making Robots Think,” had just been published. What I concluded, among other things, is that the robots created and utilized today are, without exaggeration, absolutely amazing—they can walk, talk, navigate across a desert and even do origami—but when compared to the average human being, they are, at best, rudimentary machines.
Most robots in use today are one-task wonders. Roomba, the most popular commercial robot in history, can vacuum your living room carpet. But if you want to have your kitchen or bathroom cleaned, you need a Scooba, which scrubs tile and wooden floors. Pearl, a “nursebot,” can deliver medications to patients in hospitals, but can’t pour a glass of water to help the patients take their pills. Pearl, which views the world as a bunch of blobs and blips on a grid, also can’t tell the difference between water and pizza, by the way.
When IBM’s “Deep Blue” defeated World Chess Grand Master Gary Kasparov in a showdown match in 1997, Kasparov threw up his hands, shrugged his shoulders and stomped off the stage in disgust. Later, when asked how he felt about being defeated by a machine, Kasparov replied, “Well at least he [Deep Blue] didn’t enjoy the victory.”
That’s the thing: Robots can perform highly specialized tasks—sometimes, it is true, better than humans can—but their motivations have to be programmed for them. Hollywood, the media and our own imaginations tend to exaggerate the growth and the impact of technology. Robots like the endearingly fretful C-3PO from “Star Wars” and the killing machines of “The Terminator” and its sequels are at this moment impossible to duplicate.
While working on “Almost Human,” I was also planning this issue of Creative Nonfiction. Immersed in thinking about technology and how it is changing our lives, I started to think about the ways technology has impacted, and will continue to impact, the world of publishing.