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My friend, the robot

Hugo- and Nebula-winning science fiction author David Gerrold was spot-on in his 1999 predictions about smartphones. Now he predicts computing’s future…again.

Back in 1999, I was asked to write a short article for Sm@rt Reseller magazine about the future of computing, because (allegedly) science fiction authors are in the business of contemplating the future.

Well, kinda.

Science fiction authors often consider what might happen "If this goes on—” where technology writers are best at "Here's what we've got." Some of the trends toward convergence seemed obvious to me at the time, so I put down a few thoughts…which turned out to be far more prescient than I expected. Especially that last part.

But, see, here’s the thing: Science fiction authors don’t predict the future. It’s just that once in a while, something that someone imagines does end up as a fact, and this is why some people think science fiction is a literature of prediction.

It isn’t.

Science fiction is a literature of ideas and extrapolation. It’s a consideration of possibilities. It’s a speculation on the way things could be. That’s all.

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Enter the robot, stage left

Before there was a genre called science fiction, there were many people thinking about artificial creations that simulated life: golems, Frankenstein’s monster, mechanical chess players, simulacrums of all kinds, and finally Karel Capek’s novel about Rossum’s Universal Robots. That’s where the term robots came from.

Robots have been imagined as a facet of the future ever since Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

As much as we might have imagined the utility of mechanical men, we couldn’t have built them until now. The problem has not been the mechanics as much as it has been the brain, the software, the intelligence engine.

We’ve had single-purpose robots for a long time—ever since human elevator operators were replaced by a panel of buttons. But robots that can actually make decisions based on changing circumstances require sophisticated software, what we erroneously call “artificial intelligence.” It’s not intelligence; it’s information processing. It’s pattern recognition at the service of problem-solving.

A true robot will be capable of many different tasks—and it will have the ability to learn new tasks as needed. I should be able to say, “Robbie, make me eggs Benedict for breakfast,” and Robbie will respond, “I am downloading the recipe now,” and possibly even, “We are out of eggs. I have ordered some from the store. Delivery will take 30 minutes.” Robbie will have to know how to read a recipe, understand it, inventory the ingredients needed, and order those that are not in the pantry.

Quick guide: How artificial intelligence and deep learning are being used and the tech that makes it possible.

The robot will require a level of data gathering, pattern recognition, information processing, and decision making that will surpass that of a human assistant.

At that point, the robot becomes the life manager. Cleaning house will be the least of its responsibilities. The robot will connect to all of your wireless devices and monitor what TV shows you want to watch, what toppings you want on the pizza you order, what bills you pay, and more. It will likely manage your finances as well, so that filling out your tax forms will be as simple as saying, “Robbie, file my tax return.”

All of this is already in development, or at least envisioned. The tech is there. It’s primarily a software challenge. (That, and a standardized language of data exchange.)

But there’s something else to consider.

Beyond a digital assistant

The more sophisticated a robot’s information processing ability, the more it will develop a personality tuned to the user. It will become a companion. It will become an electronic friend. It will play games, matching its ability to yours. It will offer suggestions and advice. It will be a good listener—like those old Eliza programs. It will even have a certain therapeutic function for those needing comfort. It will be an appropriate aide and companion for those with diminished mental abilities.

The robot teddy bear will be a toddler’s first friend. It will listen, it will respond, it will teach, and it will monitor the child’s health, reporting any irregularities to the parents. It will even sound an alarm in case the child stops breathing.

As the child grows, the teddy bear will evolve as well, becoming an ever-more sophisticated and robust playmate. The bear will be more than a playmate. It will play catch, helping the child develop motor skills. It will respond to “please” and “thank you,” helping the child develop better social skills. It will eventually demonstrate a sophisticated repertoire of emotional behaviors as well—happiness when the child demonstrates good behavior, and sadness and disappointment when the child demonstrates antisocial behavior.

Adolescence and adulthood will represent a whole other challenge for robot companions. But robots could become tutors and coaches throughout high school and college. Elsewhere in life, robots will be convenient in ways limited only by the needs of humans. They will become dance partners, they will play basketball, they will pace joggers, they will walk dogs, they will take on any task that can be defined by a specific set of rules. Robots will assist with the care of the sick and the elderly. They may even end up delivering the mail.

Robots will certainly have military uses, but even more important, robots will be able to function in environments too hazardous for humans—firefighting, for example, and other rescue operations. Remote operators will be able to advise robots on specific goals within that hazardous environment.

And then there’s this:

Robots as romantic partners. We’re already seeing the first steps in that direction. For some individuals, it is possible that a robot companion will be preferable to the messy uncertainty of a human relationship. It is inevitable that robots will become more and more sophisticated in their ability to interact with humans. 

All of the above is only a glimmering of what will be possible when we have machines able to navigate safely through a human world, solving specific problems and providing specific services. But the societal effects of robots are less easy to predict.

Some people will react negatively. Vandals might attack and disrupt robots. Others might find robots so disturbing they will retreat to communities where robots are restricted. Some people might reprogram their robots for illegal activities.

We are also likely to see a shift in the way individuals relate to each other. People might redefine their understanding of identity based on their understanding of robotic identities. Humans might learn to interact with each other with the same expectations that they bring to their relationships with their robots.

Perhaps some people will retreat to technological cocoons, with robots as their primary companions—because real people are messy, uncertain, and harder to manage. There may even be extreme cases of individuals refusing to interact with other humans at all, restricting themselves to games, conversations, and other various activities solely with robots.

The development of true robots will likely take at least another decade, probably longer. The process will be slow and painstaking—the development of the self-driving car is a good example of the kind of caution necessary. And that deliberate pace of development will give humans plenty of time to get used to the idea.

Here’s the singular caution.

We must not give up the most essential part of being human: the ability to connect with each other.

Yes, a robot can rock a baby—but I’m pretty sure the baby would much prefer to be rocked by a human. If we give that up, we create a generation that will never know what it is to be loved.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.