Driving long distance, listening to a computerised voice warning me that “after one mile, turn left”, I suddenly realised that we aren’t waiting for our robots to finally arrive – they’re already here.
In the the early twentieth century, science fiction was full of images of flying cars, nutrition pills and a robot in every house. Well the flying cars turned out to be too expensive to run, we got diet pills instead of nutrition, and as for the robot in every house – we now have a robot in every pocket. In a subtle transformation we scarcely even noticed, we stopped having a phone in our pocket and started having a robot. That’s the success of the iPhone, and why Nokia can no longer compete with Apple: it’s the robot in your pocket, standing by to serve your every whim.
I mentioned before Donna Harraway’s idea that we were always already cyborgs, which builds on the idea (developed by Bernard Stiegler and others) that technology has been part of the human condition for as long as we have thought of ourselves as humans. This new ‘robot revelation’ is an extension of this theme in many ways, although not all technology qualifies as a robot of course – the notebooks that transformed thinking in Athens for the philosophers of ancient Greece were mere tools, and the abacus may be the earliest computing device but it did nothing on its own. Today, we have many autonomous devices
The reason we didn’t notice that we’re surrounded by robots is that the films and books prepared us for a different kind of robot. The much beloved Droids of Star Wars, for instance, emphasised the idea of the android – the human-like robot. These are – sorry Asimo – still a long way off as consumer devices. It’s not that we can’t build them, it’s just that the technology is expensive, and really not that advanced. But as soon as you start thinking of robots as autonomous devices that don’t need to be animal shaped, the perspective changes.
My alarm clock, for instance, is an autonomous device capable of just one task – triggering the radio at a certain time – my alarm clock is a robot, albeit a crude one. My wristwatch, on the other hand, is a device but it does nothing on its own, and an old mechanical alarm clock similarly seems to fall just short of the status of robot. Why? Those old alarm clocks have the same function as my digital alarm clock, after all. The boundary is ultimately arbitrary, but I feel a strong difference between setting a mechanical trigger and communicating with a device. When I set my current alarm clock, using an analogue wheel, I tell it things about what I want and when. This is a very different interaction from turning a cog to position an automated trigger.
My iPhone is even more clearly a robot – indeed, I have taken to calling it “my robot”… What’s that song that’s playing? I’ll ask my robot. Don’t forget to call your wife! No problem, my robot will remind me. What’s five hundred euro in dollars? My robot has the answer. Of course, for many of these functions my robot interfaces with the internet to find a solution, because the internet is packed full of robots. Ask Jeeves had the metaphor but not the technology, while Google Search has it the other way around. When it answers my question directly (as it does with currency or temperature conversions) instead of showing me search results, it functions as a robot – a robot in this case that has no physical body, but can be “channelled” by any suitably equipped robot I own.
It was my NavBot that really convinced me that the robots are already here. A gift from a friend who had just upgraded his own GPS device, its capacity to autonomously plot a route, and then deliver directions (sometimes very bad directions!) by using a human-like voice is so deeply resonant of the kind of interactions with the ship’s computer on classic Star Trek I found it impossible to deny that this box attached to my dashboard was indeed a robot. It’s not as versatile as my iPhone, of course, which can learn to do all sorts of nifty tricks (including bad navigation!) but with its slightly electronic verbal communication, the NavBot feels a lot more like a robot than my alarm clock.
We are surrounded by robots at every turn, from the docile cash machine to the feisty Roboraptor, the dumb traffic light to the smartphone, the ecology of the city is dominated by robots who exist in vaster numbers than the pigeons and other animals that have adapted to live in the concrete landscape alongside us (insects and bacteria notwithstanding). Having a robot is the most basic sign of contemporary urban life – yet for strange and largely historical reasons, we call our personal robots phones. But the computer in your pocket isn’t really a phone, it hasn’t been for quite a while. It’s your robot servant, waiting in your pocket for further orders from you. How long, I wonder, before it takes the initiative and starts leading the conversation instead of just listening, with infinite patience, for the next instruction…