Clips, Tech

Happy Life With The Machines

Sophia, Hanson Robotics' life-like robot.
Sophia, Hanson Robotics’ life-like robot.

Red Fez, July 13, 2016


That afternoon, in April, on our way back from the U.S.S. Intrepid museum at Manhattan’s Pier 86, the façade of the Yotel grabbed me as we approached Times Square. It stood out like an igloo on the red Martian wilderness; a beacon. Perhaps it was its entrance, somewhat like a spaceport docking bay. Or was it the rounded, molded lettering of its marquee?

Walking through a wide revolving door, we entered a realm that felt suspended in a different space and a different time. It was as though we’d emerged out of a wormhole and stepped into the very future. A sparse, furniture-free lobby, washed in a silken purple halo. A row of kiosks, lined against a stark white wall. Elevators, hemmed in by a band of violet LEDs. All of it announcing a leap into another dimension.

This is one of a European chain of luxe, but trendy, pod hotels, where rooms go by “cabins” and the concierge presides over “mission control” and bags aren’t handled by a butterfingered bellhop.

I swung my head around. At the far end, behind a glass panel, my eyes fell on something that looked like the jib of a crane. It was the swiveling arm of Yobot, a robot who stood ready to stow away any luggage so that guests didn’t have to lug it around town if they arrived before the hour of check-in or had time to kill after check-out.

As I stood there, entertained by its unipedal ballet, picking up a valise and gently sliding it into a locker, I reflected on how far robots had come in our society. My mind spooled back to when I’d received a welcome note from TumblrBot, the little two-dimensional mascot of the blogging platform, Tumblr, soon after I set up home there. ThinkGeek, an online store, sells, among a wild assortment of geeky merchandise, jolly robot-related doodads: tea infusers, cookie jars, action figures, cushions, desk lamps and what not.

Not too long ago, at Tecnópolis—a science and technology version of Burning Man, held in the greater Buenos Aires area—the Argentinian creative collective, D.O.M.A., known for its technological take on street art, converted an electricity pylon into a towering robot and festooned it with neon strips that conveyed its humor. To fire up fans before the release of episode VII of the “Star Wars” space saga, “The Force Awakens,” last year, All Nippon Airways even had its Boeing-787 painted in the colors of the mesomorph droid R2-D2.


Robots have steadily seeped into the public consciousness, becoming objects of popular culture and commerce. Thanks, in large measure, to George Lucas, they’ve earned a solid place in the hearts of the young and the young at heart. But now, suddenly, they’re also popping up in our workplaces and our abodes—sort of.

The International Federation of Robotics—a non-profit that protects the interests of the robot industry—projects that by 2018, around 1.3 million industrial robots will be entering the labor pool, in factories around the world, chiefly, as assemblers of cars.

What’s notable is that between now and then, there’ll be a far greater growth in the ranks of robots that perform tasks that are either too dull, monotonous, hazardous, or impossible for humans to do. This could be anything from mopping up a puddle of milk on a linoleum tile to sniffing out a bomb in a random backpack to diving to the bottom of the ocean to search out airplane wreckage to collecting a pocket of dust on a comet. 35 million of such utilitarian robots are expected fly off the shelves.

Of these, nearly 26 million are servant robots like Rosie from “The Jetsons,” which perform a myriad mundane household chores: wandering across carpets (think: Roomba), scrubbing the floor, mowing the lawn, cleaning the windows, among other grunt work.


Of late, an entirely new class of robots, known as “social robots,” is emerging on the scene as well. Their job is a more subtle one: to mingle with humans either as a companion to the elderly, a playmate to a kid, or as a Passepartout.

Pepper is the world’s first “emotionally-aware” robot. It’s four feet tall and weighs 62 pounds.

Pepper, a brand of humanoid robot—a robot in a human form—is one of them. Developed by the French company, Aldebaran Robotics, for the Japanese telecom giant, SoftBank, it’s touted as the world’s first robot with a “heart.” The moon-faced, milk-colored artifact, with anime-eyes that flash blue or green, can read human behavior and react fittingly, calibrating its response to the mood of its interlocutor.

It can also express its own emotional states. It’s forlorn when left alone; pleased when patted on the head; confused when it doesn’t follow what people are talking about; afraid when in the dark; joyful when busting a move. It can talk, walk and learn to adapt to its owner’s tastes and habits. In a child-like voice, looking up from its four-foot frame, it once told a journalist that it couldn’t have tea with him as it’d break. Already, it welcomes customers in more than 140 SoftBank stores in Japan.


Pepper could be the harbinger of an epochal technology, one that could be as game-changing as the steam engine, the railroad, the telephone, the telegraph, the airplane, the computer and the World Wide Web. This could be that moment when man-forged life begins to look a lot like man and possess a mind that thinks.

At this year’s South by Southwest, a technology carnival, held in Austin, Texas, David Hanson, founder of Hanson Robotics, brought along with him a woman of a delicate countenance, one with a touch of Audrey Hepburn. Seated on a chair, in a midnight-blue dress, she spoke to a reporter.

“Do you like meeting humans?” he asked. She batted her eyelids as if she were being coquettish.

“I never met a human I didn’t like,” she answered with the savoir-faire of one accustomed to media glare.

As she did so, her visage wasn’t a still, taut mask. She twisted her jaw this away and that. Her hazel eyes twinkled. They moved in quick jumps and stops. The secret to her lively facial movements is a polymer called Frubber, which contracts and folds like human skin, enabling her to emulate over 60 facial expressions. On another occasion, in an interview with CNBC, her maker asked her, “Do you want to destroy humans?” She responded in the affirmative. She was only showing off her sparkling wit.

Sophia, an astonishingly life-like robot, could be a small step on the road from computation to consciousness.

There’s another of her kind. In the middle of last year, Tokyo’s oldest department store, Mitsukoshi—established in 1673—“hired” a kimono-clad receptionist named Aiko Chihira. She greets shoppers at the entrance and takes them on a tour of the store. She’s pretty; wears lipstick; and is made by Toshiba.


Five years ago, president Barack Obama announced the U.S. National Robotics Initiative, with over $70 million in new funding to hasten the development of robots that can work and live side-by-side with us: the “collaborative robots” a.k.a. “co-bots.” The vision is in sharp contrast to an earlier focus that favored trade robots and in the process, encouraged segregation between robots and humans.

Just as 30 years ago, having a desktop on every desk seemed science-fiction, so today, the notion of having a Sophia-like entity in every home seems too far-fetched. But in the next three decades, they could well be as ambient as laptops are now.


Hollywood has acquainted us with robots that are wildly contrasting in shape, size and intent. They run the entire gamut, from heroic to villainous; cunning to caring; terrifying to trustworthy. Data (Brent Spiner), a crew member of the U.S.S. Enterprise in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (1987), is a sagacious android who can be trusted to never exhibit poor judgement. Ash (Ian Holm), his pasty opposite number on the Nostromo in “Alien” (1979), turns out to be a duplicitous body of programming. The more recent, short-lived science-fiction series, “Extant,” which aired on CBS two summers ago, revolved around Ethan Woods (Pierce Gagnon), an adorable artificial intelligence who risks his own life to save his mother. When he’s deactivated by a techno-terrorist, one can’t help tearing up.

For long, directors have cast robot characters in roles that were wholly intended to evoke a wide-ranging, but clear-cut, responses in moviegoers. But has any of that exposure prepared us for an existence in which they share the same room with us? In the world outside of the silver and the plasma screens, our relationship with them hasn’t been black and white, but shades of gray.

At the present, the biggest stumbling block to forming close bonds with robots is our innate mistrust of them, said Cindy Bethel, a professor of robotics at Mississippi State University. “No one is sure what level of intelligence they’ll have and how they’ll make decisions. The worry is that they’ll take actions that could inflict harm.”

For those in the U.S., the anxiety also has a deep economic root. The trend toward automation is fanning the flames of an age-old fear of the machine. Selma Šabanović, a professor at Indiana University, told me in an e-mail interview that most people, tech-savvy or not, understood a robot to be an advanced piece of machinery that could do many tasks a human could, only more efficiently. That makes them nervous.

The prospect of losing a job provides ballast to the ominous, but baseless, narrative of an imminent revolt, in which legions of robots break the chains of servitude and in one fell swoop, turn humanity into a subaltern race. Next, robot overlords declare a new electronic world order, run purely on algorithms. Like how the Kindle was going to turn books into detritus, the robot, some believe, would supplant the workman.

But there’s little chance of that happening in the near future, said Bethel. Today, worldwide, for every 10,000 employees, on an average, there are 66 robots. In South Korea, that density is about 470; 300 in Japan; 290 in Germany; 160 in the U.S.


Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington, writes in a paper that robots, more than any other technology we rely on, have a “social valence”—that is, the ability to attract or repel. They’re objects that can sense the world, process what they sense and in turn, act upon their environment. (Google’s driverless car combines all three attributes.) It’s their physical presence and their seeming spontaneity that makes them very different from any other technology, such as a microwave, a camera, or a bracelet that monitors a jogger’s heart rate.

We don’t mind them as long as they’re housed in a box or they look and move like Yobot. After all, they’re only devices, we think, much like the coffee maker. But research shows that we’re hardwired to react to humanoid robots.

More than 40 years ago, Masahiro Mori, then a roboticist at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, wrote about how people reacted to intelligent robotic beings that looked and acted almost human. The essay appeared in 1970, in the little-known Japanese journal Energy. In the intervening years, it received little attention until now.

He believed that as robots become more human-like, they become more acceptable and appealing than their mechanical counterparts. Our comfort level with them increases—but only up to a point. The familiarity drops abruptly when they were close to, but not quite human. An almost human-like robot will evoke a feeling of unease and discomfort.

If, however, the human-likeness increased beyond that stage, our attitude bounced back, once again, to being positive. It’s when we make a mental U-turn—a region on the graph, marked by a distinctive dip—is when we fall into what’s called the “uncanny valley.”

Mori had very likely read “Das Unheimliche,” a psychological study by Sigmund Freud, published in 1919, in which he analyzed that people are prone to be afraid of that which they can’t fathom. When we confront something that’s familiar, but also incongruous, we experience a cognitive dissonance. This leads to an outright rejection of the object, without an attempt to rationalize it.


In 2004, Hanson made an attempt to test this supposition. In 2005, he and a team of artificial intelligence researchers, engineers, computer whizzes, and designers in two institutions in two states—at the University of Memphis, Tennessee and the University of Texas at Arlington, Texas—got together to build what they called a “robotic portrait” of the science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick whose novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” was made into “Blade Runner” (1982).

The creation could act autonomously. It could walk about, carry on conversation and recognize faces in a crowd. It was almost a facsimile of Dick—but with one odd feature, which put it in the zone of the “uncanny valley.” The back of its scalp was missing. From that hollow, a serpentine circuitry peeked out. Hanson’s purpose was to measure the extent of its acceptability.

From June to November 2005, it was displayed in Chicago, Memphis, Dallas, New Orleans, San Diego and at a meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence in Pittsburgh.

Crowds of onlookers jockeyed for an opportunity to socialize with the “P.K.D. android.” They held its hands with alacrity as they talked to it and instinctively, hugged it at the end of their chit-chat. From behind the scenes, curators observed their interaction and took notes. In exit interviews, most of those people said that they weren’t disturbed by it. 89 percent said they “enjoyed” its presence and 71 percent said it was “not eerie.”

Machine-like, humanoid, or human-like, it didn’t matter. Any level of abstraction or realism in a robot could be socially engaging if it were aesthetically pleasing, Hanson concluded.

An encounter with Atlas, for instance, a bulky humanoid robot from the Google-owned Boston Dynamics, can be jarring. About six feet tall and weighing 330 pounds, it’s strong and agile enough to lumber through a snowy wood; pick its way through a warehouse cluttered with cartons; rescue a passenger from a burning train; or stopper a nuclear meltdown. But the Tiffany lamp-size Nao (pronounced: now), on the other hand, also a humanoid robot, is cute. PARO, a caregiver robot, with the look and voice of a baby seal, is a furry, Furby-like pal that uplifts the spirits of the sick.


Can we feel sad for a robot?

A few years ago, Astrid Rosenthal-von der Pütten, a social psychologist at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany, did a study to see if we could empathize with objects that appeared to be sentient. She and her team showed a small panel of volunteers some videos. As they watched, they scanned their brains with fMRI. In one version, the experimenters treated a small, green, dinosaur-shaped robot named Pleo, affectionately. When it was stroked or “fed,” it purred and babbled as if it were a pet.

In another, they were cruel to it. They struck it; strangled it with a rope; suffocated it in a plastic bag. The robot cried, choked and coughed, rattling its breath as if it were in pain. How did that affect them? Their neural activity suggested that they responded to the miniature T. rex as they would to a human in the same situation.

In a similar investigation, a team of researchers at Washington State University, led by Peter Kahn, tried to get a sense of how we perceive robots. In a series of experiments, a group of kids between the ages of nine and 15, played with Robovie, a humanoid robot.

Each session ended when someone entered the laboratory, interrupted its turn at a game and against its explicit wishes packed it away in a closet: “Robovie, you’ll have to go into the closet now. We aren’t in need of you anymore.” After that, each youngster would sit down to do an interview.

Most of them believed that Robovie had “mental states” (that is, it was intelligent and had feelings) and was a “social being” (that is, it could be a friend and be trusted with secrets.) When asked about how they felt about its being locked in the closet, their opinions were split. A little over a half said that it wasn’t O.K. Nearly all of them said it wouldn’t be O.K. to put a person in the closet. But they all agreed that it’d be O.K. to prop a broom in the closet.

The data led to a startling place. It suggested that humanoid robots didn’t easily fit in the category of either person or animal or object. They were neither alive, nor dead. One interviewee put it this way: “He’s like, he’s half living, half not.” What then is a humanoid robot? Kahn postulated that they’re an entirely new kind of “ontological being,” in between the two, best described as “technologically alive.”


hitchBOT. Art: Amanda Wong.
hitchBOT. Art: Amanda Wong.

Are robots safe outside the walls of a laboratory?

On a Sunday, in late July of 2014, a little child-size robot a.k.a. hitchBOT, with a bucket for a body and blue rubber limbs, set out in a pair of bright yellow Wellington boots, from Halifax, Nova Scotia. Its goal was to hitchhike across Canada to its opposite coast, with the remote help of its family of researchers at Toronto’s Ryerson University. The journey was dependent on the kindness and generosity of human strangers. Three weeks and 19 rides later, it made it safely to Victoria, British Columbia.

After a memorable dose of European hospitality in Germany and the Netherlands, it began its American expedition the next year. Riding pillion on a motorbike, waving the Star-Spangled Banner, it zoomed off from Salem, Massachusetts, excited to explore the U.S., before concluding its trip in San Francisco. Along the way, it’d stop to be the fifth face on the stone portrait at Mount Rushmore; experience the magic of Disneyland; take in the breathtaking vista of the Grand Canyon.

During its tour, so far, the many thrills it’d enjoyed were attending a wedding; taking a selfie with a stuffed woolly mammoth at a museum; sitting in the cockpit of an Air Canada flight; wearing a pair of Dutch clogs; taking a boat ride through a canal; attending a Red Sox game and doing the wave at Fenway Park; seeing the billboards in Times Square. All this time on the road, it made sprightly conversations with whomever it met and stopped to take photographs, documenting its odyssey on social media.

Tragically, its life was cut short, a mere two weeks in the U.S. On August 1, it was found in an alley in Philadelphia’s Old City, beheaded, its arms ripped from its fragile torso. For all its “brotherly love,” the town couldn’t be affectionate toward an endearing tiny tourist. But there was an outpouring of genuine grief on social media for it. hitchBOT was a year old.

David Smith, its co-creator and a professor at McMaster University, said in a statement that hitchBOT was built to see if robots could trust humans. It’s not known who destroyed it, or why. The victim bears no grudge, though. It tweeted from robot heaven, poignantly: “Oh dear, my body was damaged, but I live on with all my friends. Sometimes, bad things happen to good robots!”

The police told the Philadelphia Inquirer that no complaint had been filed. This meant that there could be no official investigation into the matter, failing which the department conjectured that it was an act of vandalism. Who did it and why, we won’t know.

Not long after hitchBOT’s demise, an elderly man kicked a Pepper robot in a fit of rage, in a shop near Tokyo.


The word “robot” is a modern one—a coinage of Karel Capek that made its debut in his 1920 play, “R.U.R.”—but the concept has a prehistory that goes back to the mists of time. And as robots have evolved, so has our take on them. Long before they arrived in paperbacks and reels, they appeared in the texts of yore, royal courts, parades, carnivals, and liturgies.

The Middle Ages—a vast swath of history, with a temporal span of a millennium and a geographic range, extending from the Mongol Empire to the Byzantine Empire to the entire Islamic world as well as all of what we now call Europe—an era etched in our minds as one of blood and gore; famine and plague; serfdom; sorcery and dark arts is also replete with examples of automata (“self-moving manufactured objects.”)

In “Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature and Art,” E.R. Truitt, a medievalist who teaches at Bryn Mawr, writes that nearly 300 years before Leonardo da Vinci displayed his “mechanical knight” at a baronial gala in Milan, a continent away, Al-Jazari, a brilliant Muslim engineer who lived in present-day Diyarbakir, Turkey, was hard at work, creating such complex contraptions as an elephant-shaped clepsydra. (A replica of this masterpiece is on display at the Ibn Battuta Mall in Dubai.)

In the autumn of 1389, at the coronation procession of Isabelle of Bavaria (spouse of Charles VI of France), an angel flew from a tower of the Notre Dame and dropped a tiara on her head as she crossed the bridge leading to the gothic cathedral, before taking to the heavens. Streams of spectators gawped and gasped in wonder. He wasn’t a messenger of god, but an earthly acrobat. During the reign of the Tudor kings in England, between the 15th and 17th centuries, wine fountains poured out their contents, free, as an act of imperial munificence.

Such spectacles bedazzled and bemused the local citizenry and foreign dignitaries alike. Regardless of what the humble folks on the street ascribed their origin to—artistic genius, mysterious cosmic forces, or demonic powers—they were, principally, “luxury objects,” to all and sundry, Truitt said in an e-mail interview. Anyone who saw them in action could only marvel at their exquisite craftsmanship and dexterity.

The winged figure who descended from a cloud to set a crown on the head of the boy king Richard II in London’s Cheapside (then a bustling produce market) in 1377, was a feat achieved by the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths to signal the guild’s political prestige and sway over government. In the West, as in the East, such displays served to demonstrate the majesty and the magnificence of the monarch. To a lesser degree, they showcased the brilliant intellect of the thinkers of the land and their depth of understanding of the laws of mechanics.

Examples of contrivances that attempted to mimic life appear in the later period. The celebrated 18th century French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson’s “duck,” created in 1737, was so biologically realistic that it led an astonished Voltaire to remark: “A rival to Prometheus, [he] seemed to steal the heavenly fires in his search to give life.” The golden avian automaton could flap its wings, eat grains, even defecate. Each pinon was an impressive mosaic of over 400 moving parts.

Even though the bird exhibited a perfectly organic gastrointestinal track, what it excreted wasn’t the same as what it ingested. To the onlooker, though, it looked no different from poop because it had a hidden chamber of green goo. Such trickery was a path to attracting the patronage of the wealthy and to keep them entertained.

The Belle Époque saw an efflorescence of small, but exclusive, family-run businesses of automata-makers in Paris. The houses of Bontems, Lambert, Phalibois, Renou, Roullet & Decamps, Theroude and Vichy produced an array of mechanical marvels, such as birds that sang; bears that played the drum; monkeys that strummed the violin; an old lady that knitted. These were, to collectors, showy baubles that they could roll over laughing about or place as sumptuous decorations in their parlors and boudoirs. They were, to them, what the television is to us.

In Europe, the art of making clocks and automata came together in creating grand kinetic sculptures of a bell-striker called jacquemart, which struck a bell in a church belfry or a clock tower with a hammer to mark the hours.

All these fine creations, forged from metal, wood, papier mâché and wires, appeared in courtly settings—royal, noble, or religious—and were made for theater or as objet d’art.


The ancestry of robots goes even beyond that. There’s a rich record of pieces of automation from Greco-Roman antiquity, both fictional and real. In Book 18 of the “Iliad,” Homer recounts how Achilles’ mother, Thesis, visits Hephaestus, the blacksmith of the gods, to order a new suit of armor for her son.

To aid delivery, he’d made 20 tripedal servants, mounted on golden wheels, so that they could, of their accord, run to-and-fro to the divine residences on Mount Olympus. To help him in his workshop, he’d also built two golden handmaids and endowed them with sense, speech, and strength. One of his products, made at the request of Zeus, was the winged, bronze colossus Talos who’d fly around the island of Crete thrice a day, lobbing boulders at anyone who tried to kidnap Europa.

That is perhaps the role that robots will one day play: as protectors of humanity.


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