We are at the cusp of a major shift in civilization. For the first time in a 100 years we are talking about producing more electric cars than the ones that chug along on fossil fuels. The major workforce of the world is able to function from the convenience of their homes, putting less stress on public transport, thereby reducing the carbon footprint of the planet. Elon Musk is serious about colonizing Mars, so, one imagines, we’ll start polluting space and/or other planets instead. Back home, on Planet Earth, we’re getting used to the sight of a circular, bleeping and blooping disc gliding along the floor of our homes and keeping it spick and span. While robotic domestic cleaning aids are not yet de rigueur, and they’re most certainly not a substitute for professional house help yet, it is quite wonderful to have Star Wars-like tech right in the milieu of our own homes.
The future seems to be here, it seems. Self-driving cars? Fuzzy logic, machine learning, robot dogs that can jump and climb stairs, surgical arms for precision surgery, prosthetic limbs with biological dexterity, robots with citizenship that want to have children of their own. Are synthetic human beings the next step? Did we witness the beginnings of story-telling boxes to the millennium man in one generation? What would Asimov say?
Here’s the thing about living through a paradigm shift. You’re able to witness both the past and the future with visionary clarity. And that’s what’s happening with homo sapiens right now. As human beings make a transition from mechanical automation to true AI-driven automation, we are able to look back and ahead at the same time and mould the future to perfection. A hundred-odd years ago, humans dreamed of futuristic humanoid robots who would clean our homes, work in our factories, deliver pizza, drive our cabs and cook our food. But, in 2021, that comprehensive robotic reality is yet to materialize, and with good reason.
We don’t need human-like robots for everything. We spoke earlier of cars that drive themselves? There’s no android robot sitting in the seat turning on the windscreen wipers because we combined the android robot’s brain with the engine of our car. Instead of having a ditzy, Marilyn Monroe-esque robot tiptoeing around our house mopping the floor, we’ve got perfectly ordinary frisbee-like robots cleaning up behind us. Even when their features expand from the floor and onto the dust on bookshelves and cobwebs on the ceiling, they won’t, in all probability, assume a humanoid form. Why? Because they don’t need to. For example, remember the tactical robots in Chris Nolan’s Interstellar? There were four of them, named TARS, CASE, KIPP, and PLEX. And they were essentially rectangular boxes that could split into four and gallop along like horses. They didn’t need to be in any sort of biologically recognizable or humanoid form, and therefore, most of the robotic workforce that we will put out there will not need a human form factor either. Fully automated car manufacturing units seem to prove this. Even interstellar travel will probably require Wall-E-style terrain robots rather than nimble-footed bipeds like us.
So, where will we require a humanoid fit? Probably in places where human agility plays an important role. Possibly, the major sphere where humanoid robots would find active duty would be in security forces. Not just the army but local police as well. You see, law and order situations require both intelligence and agility. In certain physical altercations, you have to exercise physical force and athletic ability. If you have to chase down a burglar on foot, chances are a nimble humanoid robot with the advantage of an AI-based neural system will be able to complete that task much better. That robot could also probably survive gunshots better than their carbon-based counterparts. A definite advantage. Another field of humanoid robot application could well be sports. Probably not the Olympics, where feats of physical human achievements are celebrated, but who knows… contact sports like boxing, mixed martial arts, etc, could find a specialized niche for robotic participants. We may end up having synthetic humans play football, admittedly slightly inferior to the intuitive capabilities of Messis and Ronaldos, but still highly entertaining. It could just be the future of sports entertainment – a 3D extension to multiplayer online gaming.
The fact remains, there’s always a slight gap between human imagination and its ultimate application. But for the most part, we are able to envision with some clarity how (we want) the future to play out. Of course, humanoid robots today may not have positronic circuitry, and while they certainly look like they’re a part of the future, they might not be as domesticated as we fondly hope them to be. They may not hop, skip and jump between planets, but they may just augment our dreams for a utopian future. Nevertheless, we can certainly hope for the world that Steven Spielberg, Gene Roddenberry, and Asimov hoped for, and with some good luck and good management, we may, as Capt Jean-Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise often said and well, make it so. I’m keeping my robotic fingers crossed.