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