I Marieke, you robot

Eleven years ago I was completely mesmerized by the movie I, Robot. I asked myself – and I do this often while watching science fiction movies – if this could be our future? Could robots really exist, live, think for themselves and eventually take over the world? To me, that last thought seemed the most unlikely option. But now, eleven years later, I wonder if it is really that unlikely.

The Oxford English Dictionary from 1848, explains the word robot as “forced labor” or “hard work”. But the word got a different meaning when the Czech Karel Čapek introduced a ‘robot’ in his play ‘Rosumovi Univerzální Roboti’ in 1920. This play, also known as ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’ or ‘R.U.R.’, tells the story about robots made of organic material. At first the robots like to work for people. But as the play continues, they turn against humans and this eventually leads to (off course) the extinction of human race.

In 1954, George Devol designed the first programmable robot that was called Unimate. In 1961 he sold it to General Motors were it was used for lifting pieces of hot metal. About 3000 industrial robots were active in 1973 and around 2003 this amount increased to 800.000. Nowadays there are more than 1,3 million active industrial robots that are used in sectors such as electronics, rubber and plastics, cosmetics, and pharmacy.

Stone-hard perfection

The existence of robots is more and more common. And not just for helping us building a car, but also in our daily lives we will be dealing with them more and more. In Japan for example, there is a hotel that is completely managed by robots. And an English psychologist is convinced that in about 50 years we will be having sex with robots. Do you get the picture? A crashing robot receptionist when you ask her why your bill from your mini bar is so high? Or making out with a piece of “stone-hard perfection”? Because that is what psychologist Helen Driscoll means when she talks about her believe that humans in the future will prefer virtual or robot sex over having sex with a less perfect, but real human.

Will everybody be unemployed?

But when we ditch all of the extreme examples, there are also cases were robots can actually add something. Take for example the fact that robots in hospitals or robots take care for the lonely elderly. Some of us are scared that robots will eventually take over all the work of people. Vanessa Evers from the University of Twente tells us that this fear is not entirely unjustified, but that there will be new jobs due to the rise of robots. This is similar to what happened in the beginning of the last century. A lot of agricultural work was being done by machines, but at the same time a lot of new jobs for people emerged, for example in services or media.

Control everything the way I want to

It is hard to predict how this will evolve. But it will take a while before you will see robots that are an actual replacement of the human being. The development of the software that allows robots to recognise emotions and adapt their actions is very expensive. And, according to Evers, in the Netherlands we don’t have companies who are willing to invest this kind of money. I like to be in control, so for me personally a robot will be a real godsend, as I can finally program everything around me and make sure all goes according to my plan. But spending the night with a robot… I think I will pass on that one.