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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.
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.
Los Angeles traffic is arguably the worst in the nation. And wouldn't it be nice to not have to drive in it? Well, perhaps that'll be the case by 2040 — when it's estimated that 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?
Smart refrigerators can send grocery lists from a touchscreen to a smartphone. But not many shoppers can easily navigate the cavernous aisles of a Costco or other warehouse clubs without getting lost, or dodging the dubious bargains on funeral caskets and mega-packs of thumb tacks. For this, a Carnegie-Mellon professor has a glorious vision: 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.)
For those of us who have signed up for the federal government's 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!
The modern dishwasher dates back to about the 1880s. But despite such a big breakthrough, dirty dishes still pile up in sinks immediately next to dishwashing bliss. The trick now lies in getting dishes from the sink to the washer. If 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.
It stands to reason that if cute dogs or pets attract potential mates, it's only a matter of time before we'll see creative people walking their pet robots in the park — the kind of robots that can charm curious onlookers with their knowledge of fine wines and Shakespeare passages, and their squeaky, cute robot voices. PC World describes a world of cute robots, such as 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.