About a year ago, Popular Science introduced a robot into the office. One of the many virtues of working at a magazine such as ours is that we’re free to test all sorts of cool stuff. So we called the guys at Suitable Technologies and asked them to send us a BeamPro, the telepresence robot made famous by Edward Snowden (no doubt, he got the idea from us).
At the outset, we thought working side by side with a robot would be little more than a weird experiment. And it was—for about three days. Then things became strangely natural. Now when I see our robot roaming the halls or dipping into meetings, I’m no longer shocked or confused. I just smile and wave. We even named it—Gus, for reasons no one can remember. One of my fondest recent memories was watching Gus lead an office tour for 25 squealing children on Bring Your Kid to Work Day. The lesson: Children love robots.
When I describe Gus to friends, they all have some version of the same reaction: Their eyes get wide and they look vaguely creeped out. Which kind of makes sense. From the moment robots were conceived, they have been freighted with dark overtones. The initial mention of the word—in Karel Čapek’s 1920 play,_ R.U.R._—was paired with a plot in which robots (or more properly, androids) exterminated the human race. Not a great precedent.
But the fact is, robots are already working among us. Most cars today have some robotic functions, whether for parallel parking or collision avoidance. Robots now clean your home (thanks, Roomba) and operate on patients (thanks, da Vinci). There’s even a robot bellhop that will deliver hotel guests a bottle of Scotch. The leap, for most, is not in accepting help or services from robots but in accepting them as something more, as companions or friends.
As Adam Piore writes in our cover story this month, that leap is one that many in Japan are already making. There, robots are now caring for the elderly and helping customers in stores. There is even a burgeoning genre of robot plays (I wonder what Karel Čapek would think about that). If you want a glimpse of the emerging human-robot society, just look across the Pacific.
Of course, we’ve been down this road before. The 1980s saw a rush of commercial robots—who could forget Playskool’s Alphie or Tomy’s Omnibot 2000? But most of them ended up as glorified toys. This time, I’d wager that things are different. Technology is better, certainly, but so is our understanding of ourselves. If we’re truly to integrate robots into our lives—a change that at this point appears all but inevitable—then we need to forge connections with them as we do with one another. That means our forthcoming robot companions will not only be high functioning, equipped with facial recognition and artificial intelligence. They’ll also be irresistibly cute.
Enjoy the November issue.