Here Come The Bots

In the Magazine
A small toy robot is seen on a screen inside the Millenium Gaming House in Marseille November 12, 2013. Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters

Snow White was prescient. In a scene from the 1937 Disney movie, she gets a team of birds and cute woodland animals to clean the dwarfs' house while she warbles "Whistle While You Work."

A decade or two from now, that's going to be how you take care of your house - except the work will be done by small robots, each built for a single purpose. They will hover in the air to pick up clutter, climb walls to wash windows and scuttle under furniture to vacuum while you sit back with a cappuccino and binge-watch Breaking Bad reruns.

Outdoors you'll find a robot swarm cleaning the streets, trimming trees, and watering plants. Little packages will get dropped off by flying quad-rotor drones, probably emblazoned with the familiar Amazon.com smiley face. For the big stuff - like, say, a refrigerator - an autonomous vehicle guided by Google technology will pull into your driveway, and a hulking Google bot with six legs will carry the fridge up your stairs and gently set it where you want it.

Over Thanksgiving, Amazon unveiled its drone delivery project on 60 Minutes, and in no time the jokes and indignation were flying:

Hunters will grab their shotguns and use the drones like clay pigeons.


The drones will short out and fall from the sky by the hundreds when a rainstorm blows in.

Walmart is working on drones that kill Amazon drones.

Then, days after Amazon's reveal, Google went public with its new robotics unit, run by Andy Rubin, the whiz who created Google's Android operating system. The message: Google's investment is no lark. Robots are for real.

In fact, Google and a lot of other companies believe robots today are like cell phones back when they were the size of bricks and cost $6,000. It may take 10 or 20 years, but before long everybody is going to have a robot - or several.

These robots will not look the way most people expect - they won't walk and talk like C3PO or Rosie from The Jetsons. An all-purpose humanoid robot doesn't make much sense. As tech thinker Kevin Kelly wrote, "To demand that [intelligent robots] be human-like is the same flawed logic as demanding that artificial flying be birdlike, with flapping wings."

Instead, the world will gradually acquire many kinds of robots, each designed and built to most effectively carry out a particular task in a way that saves humans time, money or drudgery.

The Amazon drones would do that. Loaded with artificial intelligence, they promise to deliver small items faster than any human could.

Google's experimental driverless cars are robots. One day, a delivery truck driver will seem as redundant as an elevator operator.

Robotics and artificial intelligence are tough fields, but there's so much research lab and start-up money going into it, we'll get the technology right long before we sort out how to integrate robots socially, legally and practically. It's less difficult to imagine delivery drones working than to imagine the New York sky darkened by thousands of the things carrying everything from shoes to Chinese take-out.

"We'll solve those kinds of problems when the benefits to society become large enough," says Colin Angle, chief executive officer of iRobot, maker of the granddaddy of consumer robots, the Roomba vacuum cleaner. Angle notes that when cars were invented, they were insanely dangerous and disruptive and widely hated.

Society is already a long way into robotics and we often don't know it. I recently visited some family members who own an enormous farm in Saskatchewan. They handle the harvest with just three people and a giant combine that has so many smarts, the driver mostly rides along and never touches anything. In another decade, the smarts will be so good that the farmer can stay inside and play the commodities market while machines do all the work in the field.

Robot news will keep coming. A company called Knightscope just unveiled its robotic security guard. It could roam a warehouse floor at night, its camera keeping an eye out for anything unusual, its chemical sensors sniffing for leaks.

A startup called Play-i is making toy-like bots that can teach a 5-year-old how to program bots. And you know where that will lead in two decades: 25-year-olds who can invent ever more intelligent bots.

Rodney Brooks, who runs the robotics lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-founded iRobot with Angle, has a new robotics company, Rethink Robotics. It is making an inexpensive industrial robot that is simple to train and can work alongside a human. An entrepreneur, for instance, could set one up in her garage and teach it to make something, creating a small automated factory.

Brooks and Angle have long believed the Roomba was the first phase of the "robot-enabled home." They followed Roomba up with the Scooba floor-washing robot, and promise more along those lines - perhaps a window-washing bot, or a clothes-folding bot. (iRobot won't give specifics.) The bots will likely all be wirelessly connected to each other, and to a kind of "head butler" robot that takes commands from its owner and hands out tasks to the many mini-bots. (Speaking of prescient, the old Looney Tunes crew got it close to right in a 1947 cartoon.)

Robots working with people is no fantasy, Angle insists. This is the not-to-distant future.

Plus, it's a whole lot easier than getting birds and squirrels to do your dusting.

Join the Discussion