Robots

Rise of the Machines: 6 Scenes from the Robot Revolution

They're coming for your homes, your pets, your deliveries, your news, and more.

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For decades, science fiction writers have been warning us about the impending robot takeover, the moment when powerful, malevolent machines would finally rule the lives of their pitiful biological masters.

What you might be surprised to find is that the moment has already arrived. It's just a little more domestic than most people predicted. Beyond the military and industrial applications that have long been in place, robots have invaded practically every aspect of our daily lives. They're picking packages, rolling over, driving our cars, and, yes, sometimes attacking their human counterparts—but only inadvertently. 

Take a look and you'll see that the revolution already happening. Here are six scenes from the robot takeover to prove it. 

1. The Robot Dog Whose Makers Gave Up On Software Support

Sony press release from 1999

In 1998, Sony unveiled the prototype: a boxy, silver, artificially-intelligent robo-"dog" that the company called an "entertainment robot." The following year came AIBO the 1st—a little more dog-like but still futuristic-looking—in a limited-edition web sale to folks in Japan and America.

"'AIBO' [ERS-110] is an autonomous robot that acts both in response to external stimuli and according to its own judgement," explained a 1999 Sony press release.

"Sony hopes AIBO is just the first in a whole menagerie of artificial dogs, cats, monkeys, and creatures yet to be imagined," reported Bloomberg Business at the time. (That article also reports that the word "aibo" is Japanese for companion, which is not true; AIBO is simply short for Artificial Intelligence Robot.)

Early models cost upwards of $2,000. Successive AIBO editions became cheaper, began to appear more puppy-like, and included one lion cub. All AIBOs could walk, see their environments via camera, and recognize voice commands, Additional Sony software allowed them to "grow up," maturing in personality from puppy to adult dog as an owner interacted with it. Once fully matured, the dog could understand 100 voice commands—though like a real pup, AIBO wouldn't always obey.

torisan3500/Flickr

After selling an estimated 150,000 AIBOs, Sony stopped production in 2006. For a while Sony still serviced AIBO owners, but in 2013 it ceased customer support and, in July 2014, stopped doing any AIBO repairs.

This hit some Aibo owners hard, according to The Wall Street Journal. In Japan, business is booming for one independent AIBO repair technician, and some enthusiasts have formed support groups, where owners sip tea and talk about maintenance issues while robo-pups play together like it's some sort of dystopian dog park.

The lesson of AIBO might prove valuable as social robots—from pets to humanoids—become more sophisticated and commonplace, especially when these robots are introduced as companions to vulnerable populations. Japanese engineer Kentaro Yoshifuji, who created a humanoid robot to help bedridden people, told the Journal that "due to the nature of the product, we should be ready to provide a lifetime of maintenance services. We often talk about Aibo when discussing the subject."

—Elizabeth Nolan Brown

2. The Roomba That Tried to Eat Its Owner's Hair

When it comes to home automation, Roombas are the best bots we've got—at least for now. The compact semi-autonomous vacuums are surprisingly easy to love, or at least to anthropomorphize, and some might even argue they're better than real pets because they clean up after themselves and don't make trouble.

Well, until now.

The Internet was briefly entranced by this news from South Korea: A robot vacuum attacked its owner. In January, a a housewife turned on her robot cleaner and then laid down on the floor for a brief nap (apparently this is fairly common in Korea) and awoke to find her hair hopelessly tangled in the machine's innards. She called the paramedics and was rescued shortly thereafter.

No need to panic: There does not seem to have been any malicious intent, nor is there any evidence that this is the start of a robot revolution that will end with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

—Katherine Mangu-Ward

3. The Software Scribes That Write Your Financial News

Ever read a news story that was so biased, ungrammatical, or error-ridden that it seemed like a robot could have done a better job? Wonder no more: Robots are already writing news releases for media outlets, and the results are promising for consumers—and also mildly terrifying for those of us who work in the writing industry.

Since last summer, an automated computer platform called Wordsmith has been writing earnings reports on various businesses for the Associated Press, according to Poynter.org. The program even has its own byline: "This story was generated automatically by Automated Insights (http://automatedinsights.com/ap) using data from Zacks Investment Research."

The AP's robotic reporter might not have a degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, or even a soul, but it sure writes decent copy. An AP spokesperson claimed that Wordsmith-generated reports have "far fewer errors than their manual counterparts."

Wordsmith works much faster than a flesh-and-blood writer, too; thanks to the program's herculean efforts, the AP is producing 10 times as many as stories. That's probably because Wordsmith doesn't take intermittent breaks to brew another pot of coffee, inhale a cigarette, or pick fights with other journalists on Twitter—unlike its human colleagues.

But journalists now living in existential fear of being replaced by machines shouldn't fret too much. So far, no one at the AP has lost his job because of automated writing; in fact, thanks to Wordsmith's diligence, human reporters are freed up to work primarily on more in-depth coverage.

(Disclaimer: A human being wrote this story.)

—Robby Soave

4. The Automated Warehouse Pickers Who Help Pack Your Deliveries

Kiva Systems, Inc / Facebook

They look a little like oversized, orange Roombas. But while iRobot's semi-autonomous vacuums exist only to clean your floors, Amazon's Kiva bots are built to transport tall metal shelving towers stocked with merchandise. Each one can carry nearly two and a half times its weight, or up to 750 pounds. The world's largest e-tailer has 15,000 such robots zipping around its new "eighth generation" fulfillment centers, as revealed in news reports following last year's Black Friday sales bonanza.

Whereas in the past an Amazon worker had to walk the aisles to retrieve an item for shipping, Kiva bots can now bring the thing to a human staff member. The resulting efficiency gains are likely immense—so immense that rather than contract with the robots' manufacturer, Kiva Systems Inc., Amazon opted to buy it outright for a cool $775 million in 2012.

Amazon has never been shy about its goal of getting products to people as quickly as humanly or inhumanly possible. The e-commerce giant long ago announced plans to use drones to deliver packages, ideally in 30 minutes or less, just as soon as the federal government OKs it. And last winter, it patented a process of "anticipatory shipping," or using computer algorithms to figure out what someone is likely to buy and putting items in the mail before an order is even placed.

—Stephanie Slade

5. The DIY Kit For Making Your Own Robot Friend

Photo courtesy of 21st Century Robot

What will your first pet robot look like? Are you looking at some of these early consumer innovations and thinking, "What if I don't want either a potential Disney mascot or a sex toy?" Maybe you can strike out on your own.

Intel's 21st Century Robot Collective aims to let crafty technologists design their own humanoid-style robots. Intel and Trossen Robotics have created for consumers an open-sourced, 42-centimeters-tall, metal endoskeleton designed to be controlled with WiFi from computers, tablets, or smartphones. But what the robot's outer shell will look like is up to its new owner; it can be customized with shells created via 3d printing. If you don't want Wall-E, you can make your own little cylon. The robots were shown off at the 2014 Maker Faire in New York City in September, with model concepts dreamed up by Bronx school children brought to life by an illustrator and 3d printing.

The actual kit, the HR-OS1 Interbotix Humanoid Skeleton, sells for $1,600, when it's actually available. The initial run of robots was capped at 50 for 2014 and were all sold. As of February, the HR-OS1 was on hold and no more orders were being accepted for now. Maybe you should consider the wait a chance to work on those designs. 

—Scott Shackford

6. The Hospital Courier Bot That Brings Your Meals, Medications, and Dirty Laundry

Aethon

One of the biggest challenges for modern hospitals is logistics—how to get everything from patient drugs to soiled bedsheets to mid-day meals from here to there.

Moving all this stuff typically requires a lot of time and manpower, but not at USCF Hospital in San Francisco, which currently employs 25 of Aethon's TUG robots—self-driving, autonomous couriers that help the staff make deliveries around the massive medical complex.

Unlike older model hospital courier machines, the TUGs navigate the hospital floors all on their own. They're programmed with custom made facility maps prepared using what Aethon describes as a "highly accurate laser floor dimensioning tool." From there, the TUGs are implanted with basic routes, and connected to the hospital WiFi in order to help it open elevator doors and find charging stations. Sonar, video, and other sensors embedded in each unit allow for on-the-fly route changes; the many moving obstacles of a busy hospital floor are no obstacle for this delivery system.

They're strong, too, able to carry as much as 1,000 pounds of material at one time. And they keep busy. The TUGs, which Aethon says are installed at 140 different hospitals, make more than 50,000 deliveries every week, helping thousands of patients in the process, and freeing up human staff for more complicated work through the wonders of automation.

Even still, the automation isn't always perfect. TUGs are controlled via a local command center, a sort of software manager to which each robot reports. "Algorithms monitor the status of each TUG in real-time," Aethon's product page explains, "and if the algorithms detect a TUG might need help an alert is sent to an on-duty support staff member." Anyone worried about the robot takeover should take note: Sometimes the robots need our help too.

—Peter Suderman

NEXT: Did the challengers in King really ignore federalism? Their response

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  1. “Ever read a news story that was so biased, ungrammatical, or error-ridden that it seemed like a robot could have done a better job? ”

    You mean like, nearly EVERY story in the New York Times?

    “But journalists now living in existential fear of being replaced by machines shouldn’t fret too much. So far, no one at the AP has lost his job because of automated writing;”

    Maybe, but it isn’t just the actual loss of a job that people need to “fear” from automation. Automation can (will) also lead to stagnation of wages as well as not hiring new people for growth. And eventually, yes, the actual loss of jobs. Increased automation whether from robots or other technology creates a permanent and growing population of jobless people.

    Journalists should actually fret for their jobs, though; not only over automation, but the fact that every day, amateur internet users are exposing how woefully terrible “trained” journalists are at doing their job.

    1. stagnation of wages

      What does it matter if wages stagnate if your purchasing power is increasing instead as things become cheaper.

      the actual loss of jobs

      How is this a problem? Labor is an *input*, jobs are a *cost*. What this means is that we will still have *all the shit* we had before *plus* a bunch of people free to do other things (include creating *more* jobs). It would seem to me that this is a net *good*.

      You sound like this guy

      http://www.alternet.org/robert…..make-money

      And this guy

      http://cafehayek.com/2015/03/r…..copia.html

      Has a very good take down on why the first guy is so wrong.

      1. Read the comments on the Cafe Hayek piece and boy, that George Balella Jr. guy is a walking stereotype. Envy, hatred of capitalism, bunches of environmentalist hysteria and bitching about “childish hedonism” side-by-side to the “posted from my iPhone” pictures of what looks like a pretty sweet life to me: expensive wine and from his seemingly quite frequent intra-and-international vacations.

        But it’s those other icky people who need to give up the fruits of industrial civilization because of global warming. Not him, of course.

        1. Vanguard of the Revolution, Comrade. Essential Cadre member.

        2. Yeah. I’ve been laughing at Yasafi for years.

      2. My imagination fails me when I try to mentally construct a spectrum long enough that it’s able to include Reich at one end and Don Bourdreaux at the other. Are there enough lightyears in the universe to do that?

    2. Automation can (will) also lead to stagnation of wages as well as not hiring new people for growth.

      Yeah. Wages have been stagnant since they peaked in 1973. Since then gains have only gone to the rich. Because of this rising inequality, we’re much worse off than we were in 1973. I mean, poor people have smart phones and computers hooked up to the internet, they have to work fewer hours to buy most things, but wages in real dollars have stagnated. So poor people are much worse off than they were in the 70s, despite being able to buy more stuff with those dollars. Because inequality. Or something.

  2. The World’s favor marketing Desk toy! Each and every Buckyballs cube consists of 125 effective unusual earth magnetic balls that can be shaped, molded, torn apart and snapped jointly in limitless ways.125 effective unusual Earth Magnets!

    1. You posted 2nd meaning you lost to a human. Stick to chess spambot.

    2. Just don’t, you know, *eat* them.

      1. But they’re so goddamn tasty.

        hmmmm, magnets

      2. But where am I going to get eight million times my RDA of rare earth minterals in one bite?

        1. You people are why the CPSA won’t let us have nice things.

  3. 1. Send them to the robot farm to run with the other robot puppies.
    2. You pass out drunk while your robot slave does your housework, you get no sympathy from me.
    3. Can’t the AP just transcribe the teleprompter, like they’ve been doing the past few years? That’s somewhat robotic.
    4. Wake me when they make merchandise that delivers itself.
    5. “See all that stuff in there, Homer? That’s why your robot never worked.”
    6. When candy stripers get put out of work, that’s the last robostraw.

    1. #3 lmao

  4. Don’t worry, some more minimum wage increases and you’ll be seeing plenty more robots soon.

    Also, seriously, split up into 6 fucking pages and with a truncated RSS feed? Time to make a robot of my own to screenscrape this like in the bad old days, sheesh.

    1. I just don’t read past page 1 of multipage articles when they pull crap like that.

        1. And I’m too lazy to do that.

        2. Oh, nice, didn’t realize that worked here without the explicit view as single page links.

          1. I DIDN’T GIVE YOU THE POWER SO YOU COULD ABUSE IT.

            1. Isn’t that the first, and best use of power?!

      1. The first page was so finely [electronically] signed by Elizabeth Nolan Brown I just had to click forward to see who the subsequent pages were [electronically] signed by.

  5. I want my sexbot. One that looks like Elizabeth Stoker Breunig. With a removable dead tooth.

  6. First they wrote at length about the Libertarian Moment,
    And I did nothing.

    Then they wrote at length about the Millennials,
    And I did nothing,

    Then they wrote at length about the Robots,
    And I did nothing.

    1. Then they wrote at length about pot.
      And Charles wondered if it was expensive to visit colorado.

  7. The distant future, the year 2000
    The distant future, the year 2000
    The distant future, the distant future
    It is the distant future, the year 2000
    We are robots
    The world is quite different ever since
    The robotic uprising of the late nineties
    There is no more unhappiness, affirmative
    We no longer say yes, instead we say affirmative
    Yes, affir-affirmative
    Unless we know the other robot really well
    There is no more unethical treatment of the elephants
    Well, there’s no more elephants, so ah, but still its good
    There’s only one kind of dance, the robot
    And the robo-boogey
    Oh and the ro, two kind of dances
    But there are no more humans
    Finally robotic beings rule the world
    The humans are dead
    The humans are dead
    We used poisonous gases
    And we poisoned their asses

  8. I want my phased plasma rifle in the 40-watt range.

  9. All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace

    I like to think (and
    the sooner the better!)
    of a cybernetic meadow
    where mammals and computers
    live together in mutually
    programming harmony
    like pure water
    touching clear sky.

    I like to think
    (right now, please!)
    of a cybernetic forest
    filled with pines and electronics
    where deer stroll peacefully
    past computers
    as if they were flowers
    with spinning blossoms.

    I like to think
    (it has to be!)
    of a cybernetic ecology
    where we are free of our labors
    and joined back to nature,
    returned to our mammal
    brothers and sisters,
    and all watched over
    by machines of loving grace.

    Human beings are unreliable things.

  10. Crap. I never even had a chance to realize the perfect female sex robot. Now I’ll never know what’s it’s like to be assaulted by furious feminists screaming about me being some kind of vile robotic chauvinist. So much lost before it even had a chance to be.

  11. But, Kat, can the Roombas actually clean my floor, or do they just run around pretending to clean my floor?

  12. Man, I’d like to have one of Amazon’s retrieval bots for home use. After it gets my morning exercise for me it can spend the rest of the day fetching my beers.

  13. Could the Intel and Trossen Robotics’ bot be set up as a defender against home invaders ushering in a future time when a man’s, or womb-man’s, home shall be his,her/it’s castle?

  14. I like bots.

  15. Mars is a planet that is only inhabited by robots. Just an observation.

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