You’re finally home after an agonizing day riddled with angry clients and long meetings — in other words, the day from hell. Welcoming you is someone who knows with just a glance at your cranky face that a single malt, a homemade dinner and a hot shower are all that’s needed to set things right.
Sounds pretty perfect, doesn’t it? Alas, I’m not talking about marital bliss, nor is this a page out of The Stepford Wives. It’s a glimpse into what everyday life with personal robots might resemble in the not-so-distant future.
Although she once promised to destroy humankind, Sophia by Hanson Robotics is the supermodel of cyborgs: an eerily attractive humanoid with a penchant for nonverbal communication. She and others like her operate on an artificial intelligence platform and have the ability to measure and react to unspoken human emotion. Not only can these robots read and acknowledge nonverbal social cues but they can also respond in kind with appropriate expressions and gestures of their own. And according to founder David Hanson, this is just the beginning. The future will bring us robots “as conscious, creative and capable as any human,” he asserts.
Alas, while Hanson hasn’t disclosed when Sophia will be available to the public, never fear; Pepper is here. Lauded as “the first humanoid robot designed to live with humans,” it was initially created for commercial use, but the public outcry for a personal version rapidly changed the corporate vision. Spicing up your life will run you about $14,000 over the course of three years (an initial hardware outlay of $1,600 plus the required $360 monthly subscription). What you get for your money is a robot that can gesture, encourage and serve as your home’s technical hub. But Pepper’s most notable feat is not what it can do but how it decides to do it. For example, if the robot thinks you look sad, it may suggest calling your bestie for a mood-lifting chat. If Pepper reads anger in your facial expressions, it may offer up some breathing exercises to help you cool off. Or if it thinks you look a bit bored, it may spin a tune and bust a move.
For the truly technologically inclined, next year’s Aeolus represents the robotic holy grail. Arguably the most highly anticipated personal robot of all time, it gives The Jetsons’ Rosey a run for her money when it comes to performing household chores. In addition to completing tasks like sweeping and vacuuming, Aeolus can learn to identify 1,000+ household items — all the better to pick them up and put them in their proper place. What’s more, it begins to recognize each family member (via facial recognition, of course) and their preferences, a knack that helps it predict which items each person is most likely to request. In other words, this hard-wired honey is at your beck and call to fetch your favorite snack while you binge watch some Netflix.
While many (myself included) would consider a robot that cleans the house the best thing since sliced bread, some people are seeking out robots with some very — ahem — specialized talents. Meet Roxxxy TrueCompanion ($10,000 plus required subscription), a humanoid robot with remarkably lifelike features and enough AI to carry on a conversation, react to touch, display mood and emotion, and even speak several languages. Fully customizable (and I do mean fully), Roxxxy comes replete with all the necessary bells and whistles right out of the box. She even boasts a handful of alternate personalities like “Wild Wendy” and “S & M Susan.” If you haven’t yet guessed, Roxxxy is a bona-fide love machine, and the TrueCompanion head honchos make no bones as to her primary function.
While the talents that Roxxxy brings to the table — or the bed, as the case may be — are pretty apparent, a sex robot’s mere existence raises some big questions (among other things). Namely, can someone find happiness with a robot given that AI can only offer artificial love? The experts have their doubts. “People form [emotional] expectations,” warns Matthias Scheutz, director of Tufts University’s Human-Robot Interaction Laboratory, “and the robot will inevitably disappoint.”
But the issue of ethics in robotics goes far beyond those programmed for X-rated activities. Ask any soccer mom who has run one too many carpools what she’s lusting after, and chances are the idea of a self-driving car will elicit wanton desire. While driver-less personal vehicles aren’t yet available to the public, an autonomous rideshare program called Waymo is. And although the idea of never again having to make small talk with a cabby does have exponential appeal, fully autonomous cars as they currently exist are far from perfect. Case in point: The AI (literally) driving these vehicles can avoid obstacles, but it can’t necessarily determine what those obstacles are. And it’s that inability to differentiate between a speed bump and, say, a puppy that’s keeping fully autonomous automobiles from replacing the family Volvo.
So how do you teach ethics to a robot? Enter the Moral Machine, MIT’s platform for “gathering a human perspective on moral decisions made by machine intelligence.” A macabre video game version of Philippa Foot’s Trolley Problem, it has elevated the philosophical debate by introducing the phenomenon of crowdsourcing. The premise is simple: Online users watch a series of scenarios illustrating dilemmas involving self-driving cars and select what they believe to be the moral choice. The information gleaned is then used to inform decisions that AI must make in the future. Call it ethics by committee if you will, but the need for such intel is immediate and fast rising.
Around the world, people in countries like Japan and Korea have already embraced personal robots in their homes, and by next year, it’s expected that one in 10 American households will own a consumer robot, according to Juniper Research. Indeed, this future isn’t some fantasy in a galaxy far, far away. Much like computers, smartphones and all the other once-inconceivable technology we now use in our everyday lives, personal robots are very real. And, ready or not, here they come.
“Will robots change our lives in the future?” muses robotics pioneer Mark Tilden. “Robots won’t just change our lives in the future, they’ll expand them. Not just for fun, but for necessity. We’ve taken the first steps into welcoming them into our homes; we just have to wait a bit to proctor them into making us more human.”