There was a time not so long ago when robots were still the stuff of science fiction: curious mechanical humanoids, sometimes malevolent, sometimes comic, their natural milieu the blockbuster or B movie. Today, just two or three generations later, the reality is both very different and far more mundane: robots resemble nothing so much as oversized power tools on the factory floor engaged in the unglamorous but useful hard graft.
Because usefulness is what robots are all about. The heat of industrial progress has boiled off the fantasy and reduced the idea to its practical essentials: tools for doing jobs that are necessary but too arduous or tedious to be a decent fit for human labour. As much as novelists and filmmakers might not want to hear it, in real life robots turn out to be … boring!
Except that they aren’t. And real life is always stranger than fiction.
Because there is a robot whose job it is to feed you with tomatoes while you’re out jogging. You wear the device – called the Tomatan – like a backpack on your shoulders; then, at the flip of a lever, the thing reaches into its backpack with two arms, swings a tomato over its head and into position in front of your mouth. It was developed for Japanese fruit juice giant Kagome by ‘art unit’ Maywa Denki.
And there are others. There are mannequin-like robots who ride camels in camel races in the Arabian Gulf. They even brandish little whips to spur the animals on. Then there are robots whose sole purpose is to hitch lifts in cars and trucks. The first so-called hitchBOT went coast to coast in Canada in 19 rides over 26 days.
There are plenty of robot makers, it seems, who don’t buy the usefulness argument. Some robots do nothing but play games and work out puzzles. In 2016 a device called Sub1 Reloaded solved a Rubik’s Cube in 0.637 seconds, breaking the record set by an earlier version of the machine fitted with a different processor. Two years later another robot, this one with better motors, got the time down to 0.38 seconds.
The same fascination with superhuman speed saw researchers at the University of Tokyo develop a robotic hand that always wins at rock-paper-scissors (or janken as the game is called in Japan). The machine takes just one millisecond to spot what shape its human opponent’s hand is forming before making its winning move.
It is in fact not difficult to understand the appeal of these games-playing robots: they are very good at what they do. Whatever else they’re not, they are at least superior performers. Harder to make sense of are those machines that take on the kind of tasks that robots – so convention has it, at least – were never really meant for: the human, creative, even artistic things.
Like playing the ukelele. UkuRobot – designed and put together at the AGH University of Science and Technology in Krakow, Poland – uses 16 servo motors to pluck the instrument’s strings and press its frets in preprogrammed sequence: a microcontroller-driven take, essentially, on that much older musical automaton, the player piano.
Mechanised musicianship (and UkuRobot does sound mechanised) is one thing, but robots making actual art? It’s been done too. The American artist and roboticist Pindar van Arman – whose machine CloudPainter won the 2018 Robot Art prize – specialises in developing deep learning software thanks to which his paintbrush-wielding machines are able to execute ‘a surprising amount of independent aesthetic decisions’.
The success with which artificial intelligence systems are now capable of emulating human creativity has been further demonstrated in the world of written fiction. In 2016, and without knowing anything about its authorship, the Japanese Nikkei Hoshi Shinichi Literary Award approved into the competition, and past the first round, a short story called ‘The Day a Computer Writes a Novel’. About 20% of it had been composed by an AI program.
Whatever happened to the orthodox wisdom of clearly demarcated roles for robots and humans? If it is wisdom, it is being widely subverted – and not just by the novelty androids that check you in and take your bags at the Henn na Hotel in Tokyo or by the ‘fanbots’ that fill empty seats (substituting for supporters stuck at home) in the Hanwha Eagles baseball stadium, South Korea.
The weirdest robots of all are those with the job of actually simulating human beings. There are a number of them. SoftBank Robotics’ Pepper, now five years old, is one of the best-known. This baby-faced, pint-sized semi-humanoid recognises speech and reads emotion so well it can handle interactive low-level employment in banks, shops, schools and nursing homes.
But Hanson Robotics’ Sophia indisputably leads the charge when it comes to robots that look and behave like real people. A cutting-edge fusion of AI, visual data processing and facial recognition (her own face is modelled on Audrey Hepburn’s) and able to hold simple conversations on set subjects, Sophia has impressed and unnerved in a variety of media, from chat shows to music videos. In 2017 she was even made an Innovation Champion for the United Nations Development Programme.
The robots we make, then, evidently reflect far more than just our need for practical assistance with specific workplace tasks. They are expressions, too, of the full gamut of human whimsy and of the outer limits of our creative ambitions. What this says about their direction of travel is by no means clear. But one thing is certain: if you think you know robots, and what they do, and what they might do in the future – in fact, what they might be in the future – it might be wise to think again.