From the terminus of the 19th century to the early part of the 21st, robots have come quite a ways. No longer the fanciful automatons of public exhibition or science fiction, the robots of today can do all sorts of cool things — like fetch clothing items for you while you shop. Hointer, a Seattle jeans store conceived of by a former Amazon executive, is like no other: instead of interacting with salespeople, shoppers use smartphones to scan what they like, and a robotic system delivers items to their dressing rooms. Shoppers can even send for different sizes and colors with the touch of a button.
This robot personal shopper got us thinking about the other kinds of cool things that robots might do for us in the years ahead. Certainly working on assembly lines and testing life-saving vaccines are noble and practical. But if it's useful you want — as in, "mix me a martini and take out the trash" — then watch out Siri. We hope that the next generation of robots will gladly obey these commands.
Hey, robot! Pick up my dirty laundry
By our estimates, the problem of dirty laundry dates back at least 10,000 years; mere seconds later, men began dropping their smelly tunics and loincloths onto the dirt floors of planet Earth. Could robots finally come to the rescue regarding this most laborious of chores? Perhaps that's the fervent wish of nearly a million people who have watched the UC Berkeley robot called PR2 fold laundry fresh from the dryer. We're still hoping that the PR2 can eventually develop a "sniff sensor" so that it can sense dirty underwear on the floor and stash it in a hamper until wash day.
Hey, robot! Drive my car through traffic
driverless cars will account for 75% of all vehicles on the road. We can hardly wait, but we've got lots of questions. For starters, if Cornelius Slowpoke is allowed to program his own driverless car, will he just transfer his terrapin reflexes to the robot brain? And what if someone hacks the car's computer, or there's a glitch in the traffic control software? Could you program a trip for Philadelphia, PA. and wind up in Philadelphia, MS?
Hey, robot! Get me out of Costco on budget (and sane)
a robot that helps shoppers find everything on their shopping lists. Priya Narasimhan's 3'5" robot, called AndyVision, recognizes items based on their shape, color, and location, and its visual-recognition technology notices when something is missing, misplaced, or low in stock. (If only it could also hyper-extend a robotic arm to snag that free sample of beef fajitas before the lady who just cut in front of you takes the last one.)
Hey, robot! Handle those cold-calling salesmen
National Do Not Call Registry and still receive those sales calls, a robotic answering device is ideal. The robot would answer the telemarketer in one of three ways: a) "Your call is very important to us, please continue to hold" (followed by a loop of Bob Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay"). Or b): Industrial heavy-metal music accompanied by indecipherable primate screeching. Or c): An echo machine that repeats everything the caller says through endless feedback. Such technology could easily be adapted for bill collectors, in-laws, or ... robo-calls!
Hey, robot! Clean up my dirty dishes
the average sink-to-dishwasher distance is a whopping 2 feet, then let's convert that AndyVision bot to recognize dirty dishes, pick them up, and put them in a dishwasher.
Hey, robot! Be a babe (or a hunk) magnet
Sega Toys' E.M.A. Robot (for Eternal Maiden Actualization, but pronounced "Emma"). It's flirtatious and interactive, and features a "love" mode. (If you put your head close to the robot, it will "kiss" you.) Now, let's keep this in perspective — we're talking about robots that can help us find a significant other, not fill in for one. And nothing too powerful, mind you: the last thing we need is a no-good, double-dealing cyborg trying to cut in on a budding human romance.
Robots may not be able to perform any of these things adequately (yet). But beauty and utility are in the eye of the programmer. We imagine that somewhere out there is a crafty inventor who has fashioned an android that can do something eminently practical. But some noble causes, like locating the best deals on your favorite merchandise, we don't need robots to do. In that sense, the future is already here.