3 robots

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There’s a character you see a lot in science fiction. Basically, you start with a futuristic world in which it’s mostly accepted as normal for androids to walk among us. Into that world, you place a gruff, old-school hero, who has total disdain and/or even hatred for all robots.


  • Harrison Ford in Star Wars, whose Han Solo is constantly annoyed by the presence of C3PO.

  • Will Smith’s Del Spooner in I, Robot, whose defining characteristic is his nostalgia for a time before his own, in which technology hadn’t quite yet taken over all of society.

  • Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley in the Aliens movies. Given that a devious android disguised as a human nearly leads her to a gruesome death in the first movie, her antipathy is understandable.

Now, I think of myself as a very tech-friendly guy. But after indications over the last month or two that we’re at the dawn of the age of humanoid robots, I’ve noticed I’m moving hard and fast in the Solo-Spooner-Ripley direction.

I give you three tech triggers:

First, we start with the humanoid robot that Elon Musk says Tesla is working on. As Musk put it, Tesla cars are “like semi-sentient robots on wheels [so] it kind of makes sense to put that onto a humanoid form.”

As of now, they have nothing; literally, just an actor who dressed up as a robot for Tesla's AI Day event. Yet Musk says he thinks they’ll have a working prototype—5-foot-8, weighing 125 pounds—by next year.

I am not reassured by Musk’s promise that his robot, just a shade under the size of UFC champion Conor McGregor, would be designed so that average humans could run away from it, and “most likely overpower it.”

Strike 1.

Next up, we have Boston Dynamics. These are the kind of cool but scary-looking dog-robots that I’m sure you’ve seen over the last few years. If not, here’s one of them dancing at a college football halftime show earlier this month.

That’s about the best foot forward you’ll see on these things, which most often look terrifying in videos. (The company’s CEO says it “really bothers” him when he hears that reaction.)

Boston Dynamics says it’s sold “several hundred” robots, which according to CNBC have been used for “inspections at construction sites, oil rigs, nuclear plants, to check the vital signs of COVID-19 patients in hospitals, and even remind people to maintain social distance amid the pandemic.”

I don’t spend a lot of time on construction sites, oil rigs, and nuclear plants, but I’m still unnerved.

(Side note from Kate: My university obtained a “Spot” robot in June to help with hazardous environment studies. I’m…not entirely okay with this, on the grounds of being at the center of the Robot Uprising someday.)

Strike 2.

Finally, for today’s purposes, we have Amazon’s new $1,000 Astro mobile spybot.

Er, I mean, “home robot.”

This one is at least tiny and kind of cute because it rolls around with a video screen face making sad puppy dog eyes. It brings you drinks if you tell it to. It lets you do video calls via its face. It apparently has a creepy-looking telescopic periscope, and the ability to live-stream anything that happens in your home to anywhere in the world.

Yeah. Um, no.

It’s “designed to track the behavior of everyone in your home to help it perform its surveillance and helper duties,” according to Vice, which says it obtained internal development documents and video recordings of Astro software development meetings that make it seem a little less cutesy.

Strike 3.

So, call for comments: Robots, yay, nay, or “Murph, this is still science fiction” ? Also: I would not be surprised to learn we have a few robotics engineers among our readers. What am I missing above?

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