The shiny white robot has a stooped, almost deferential stance as it approaches the Honda employees seated around a table. It turns its black faceplate to the humans, makes an open-handed gesture, and asks if they want anything to drink.
The people all speak simultaneously. What initially seems like rudeness turns out to be efficiency: ASIMO, the most advanced humanoid robot on the market, can understand multiple voices at once and uses facial recognition software to match the men with their requests. "Oolong tea, Mr. Ohara?" "Coffee, Mr. Oga?" "Milk tea, Mr. Ariizumi?" it confirms. They nod, and ASIMO heads off to fill the orders.
So far, ASIMO—at least as seen in a 2014 segment on Japanese public television—appears rather more competent than the baristas at my local Starbucks, who frequently ask me to repeat my order and haven't a clue who I am, despite my semi-regular appearances at the same location for the last six years. But as ASIMO walks away to pick up the drinks, it's apparent that there's much work ahead for Honda's engineers. The gait of the hobbit-sized machine is slow, with the knees-bent, elbows-out posture of a cautious toddler on unfamiliar turf. Honda claims that ASIMO (an acronym for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility, not a deliberate tribute to the science fiction novelist Isaac Asimov, the company insists) comes equipped with a collision avoidance system, but that too is on par with a 2-year-old—everything is fine when nearby people are moving slowly and making allowances for the fledgling bot, but Mr. Ohara, Mr. Oga, and Mr. Ariizumi would be very thirsty indeed if they trusted ASIMO to pick up their drinks and carry them down a busy city street at rush hour.
Watching Honda's latest shuffle along creates a kind of vertigo. The robot revolution seems simultaneously upon us—look, a real robot serving coffee!—and eons away. But that dissonance is a clue that we are nestled in the elbow of an exponential curve. All around us, a Cambrian explosion of robotics is taking place, writes Peter Diamandis, chairman of the X Prize Foundation, at Singularity Hub, "with species of all sizes, shapes and modes of mobility crawling out of the muck of the lab and onto the terra firma of the marketplace, about to enter your home and your shopping experience."
Diamandis is right. Your house, neighborhood, and office are already full of the robots humanity has been waiting for with both anticipation and dread. They may be the equivalent of trilobites now, but they're multiplying and mutating rapidly. While pessimists fret that a new kind of intelligent automation will mean social, economic, and political upheaval, the fact is that the robots are already here and the humans are doing what we have always done in the face of change: anticipating and adapting where we can, muddling through where we can't, and trying to enjoy the ride.
Domo Arigato, Mr. Roomba
When it comes to prognostications about the robot revolution—and for the purposes of this article, we'll take an expansive view of what constitutes a robot, lumping together a wide variety of automated digital and mechanical deputies—Roombas are frequently asked to shoulder more than their fair share of the burden. Semi-autonomous vacuums are the most visible robots on the market, with more than 10 million sold worldwide at the end of last year. They look like the devices science fiction told us to expect: standalone machines that perform tasks on behalf of human beings, integrated into everyday life.
But if we're being honest, they're also a bit of a letdown. Anyone willing to fork over a few hundred bucks to the iRobot Corporation can have a machine zip out from under his sofa—that's where mine lives, anyway—and vacuum his house from time to time. It's oddly hypnotic to watch the device in action, as it deftly avoids falling down stairs, extricates itself from rug tassels and tight spots, and handily routes around chair legs. But it's just a vacuum cleaner, after all: a slightly smarter version of the dishwashers, washing machines, and microwaves we take for granted. And like ASIMO, the Roomba seems remarkably capable at some tasks and astonishingly inept at others, as when it accidentally bumps the door of the bathroom closed and then bounces around for hours, mindlessly cleaning the same tiny space until its battery dies.
Then there's the matter of the human maintenance required by our robot servants. The Roomba will go find its charging station when it needs more power (unless it's locked in the half bath, of course). But it requires a person to empty the reservoir when it's full of dirt and to periodically clean the moving parts. I'm terrible at taking care of my Roomba—I haven't changed the filters, well, ever—which generates a vague sense of guilt, as if I am mistreating a pet. In fact, extracting small objects from its bristles when they get caught feels surprisingly similar to the act of yanking a chicken bone from the mouth of a disobedient puppy. Small mammals love Roombas—YouTube offers an entire genre of "Roomba rodeo" videos, in which babies, cats, and small dogs glide around on the backs of the motorized discs—but the expensive machines are not meant to be used as carnival rides and are easily damaged, requiring yet more intervention. These 10 million vacuums don't exactly seem poised to gain sentience and take over the planet.
Still, having a Roomba means that I spend less time cleaning up crushed snack-food items—or less money employing someone else to perform that task. Does the fact that a machine instead of a person is lowering the Cheerio-load in my carpet mean it's time to start freaking out about the future of employment?
The Automation Jobless
When we talk about robots taking jobs, strong hydraulic arms looming over factory assembly lines is what comes most readily to mind. The International Federation of Robotics put the population of industrial robots at more than 1.1 million in 2013, making robots a well-established component of U.S. manufacturing.
But the more interesting (and less well understood) phenomenon is the advent of robot replacements for jobs long considered immune from mechanization, particularly the service functions that make up a significant part of our day-to-day interactions.
Speaking at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in March, Bill Gates hinted that a little freaking out might be in order: "Software substitution, whether it's for drivers or waiters or nurses, [is] progressing...Twenty years from now, labor demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower. I don't think people have that in their mental model." A September 2013 study from Oxford University looked at 702 occupations and found that 47 percent of total U.S. employment faces the risk of being eliminated in favor of computerization.
But this isn't the stuff of a misty, menacing future. It's already underway. The Botlr robot, deployed in some properties of the Starwood hotel chain, delivers extra towels and forgotten toiletries to hotel guests. Having a robot show up with your missing items sounds much better than awkwardly answering the door with your bare legs sticking out of the bottom of a hotel robe with a couple of crumpled dollar bills awkwardly clutched in your hand.
Singapore's Timbre restaurant group signed a deal in November to bring flying Infinium-Serve robot waiters to their five locations in the labor-crunched country. The robots would deliver food and drink—acting as propellered busboys, but not fully replacing waiters and bartenders, who would continue to be tasked with "higher-value tasks such as getting feedback from customers," CEO Woon Joonyang said in a press release. The Consumer Electronics Association predicts that commercial sales of unmanned aerial vehicles will reach $130 million in revenue in 2015, up 55 percent from last year, putting 400,000 units into the skies.
While unemployment rates have fallen to 5.6 percent and financial markets have largely recovered from the recession, ordinary people share the intuition that technology may be to blame for some unpleasant economic undercurrents, including high joblessness rates among young people, record numbers of Americans who say they have stopped looking for work, and expanded disability rolls. A December New York Times/CBS News/Kaiser Family Foundation poll of unemployed 25- to 54-year-olds found that 37 percent of those who said they wanted a job believed technology was a reason they did not have one.