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Whenever the subject of robots comes up someone is sure to pour scorn on the Star Wars concept of personal or domestic robots: versatile, slightly humanoid individuals such as CP30 and to a lesser extent R2D2, who can move through an unconstrained environment almost as well as humans can, and act in an apparently reasonable way.
Of course they are right! Especially when we see such improbable feats as for example, R2D2 speeding smoothly through tangled virgin rainforest... on nothing more than a set of three-inch wheels.
But they may also be in danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater...
Yes, domestic robots are difficult but I for one do not intend to be scrubbing my own potatoes in fifteen years time, or even, hopefully, in ten years time.
No, of course not, says another, very reasonable body of thought, it will be done for you, but not by a moveable general purpose robot: a more fertile line of development to follow is that of the Intelligent House. According to this concept, every machine that presently exists is improved and developed with enough on-board intelligence to carry out its specified tasks. A good example of this is a freezer with a bar-code reader attached to it. When you put your shopping in the bar-code is read and the freezer notes what goes in when. It then sends you messages from time to time, either on a screen somewhere, or else with a voice sythesiser. Things like; "Look, you really have got to eat that lobster tonight, its already three weeks over the recommended storage time and I've set the temperature down eight degrees but THAT is spoiling the strawberries on the shelf below. If you don't get it out today...I shall ring for the police!"
(Of course normally the freezer only rings for the police if the power is cut or the door left open and both you and the next door neighbours are out.) Nice. So we could have an intelligent freezer, connected to the main house computer. But what about the kitchen sink?
The freezer was easy, apart from a little barcode reader, everything is covered by a microprocessor, a few sensors and an RS232 port. The sink is more difficult.
Are there going to be a set of specialised machines all round, or will there be a pair of arms sprouting behind the taps: I can just see those hands turning the taps on and off: four hands would be good: or eight, like the Indian goddess dancer. No, not the hands, too difficult and expensive to tie up permanently at the sink, so it has to be special machines, like a potato scrubber... But wait a moment, these already exist, and have done for decades, but nobody uses them. Why not?
Partly the cost, partly the space they take up, but above all you have to clean them out afterwards.
Then there is:- the electric can opener, those chopper things you bang with the palm of your hand, the electric carving knife, ice cream makers, ice crushers, and what about those wonderful American Food Processors the colour supplements were so full of a year or two back?
Well you may use one or two of these things, but we could make a pile of all the special kitchen gadgets that have been invented and never used, or bought but soon left to gather dust in a cupboard, and the pile would reach to the top of the world.
No, what we really want is just an extra pair of hands. Or two.
Let's imagine. Let's dream for a moment that it was all easy, that we could each have our own personal slave or maybe several! Not human beings, because we don't want to exploit other human beings, but able to do everything a human being could do, but never get bored or tired. You wouldn't need an American Food Processor, a slave could just quietly chop it all up ever so fine with a simple knife, then run the knife under the tap. You wouldn't need a dishwasher, a slave could just wash the plates and things in a bowl, rinse, dry and put them away.
You wouldn't even need a washing machine, because the slave would slave away like our grandmothers did, laundering the whites and woolens in a bowl in the sink.
The slave could stand and stir the gravy. It could make real mayonnaise: those of you not versed in the art of cookery may not know that you have to keep stirring ceaslessly for about twenty minutes (or so it seems) while you add the oil drop by drop.
It could chop the steak tartar by hand (those same people may not realise that to put filet steak for steak tartar through an actual mincer is an act of vandalism: it has to be chopped finely with a sharp knife. I used to do food photography so I know all about these things!)
All sorts of delicacies could be yours: home made soups, fresh home baked bread; your slippers in front of the fire in the evening. Need I go on?
At this point a cry of protest may well go up ( although perhaps not from this particular audience): "But what would we do with ourselves all day, we'd be bored out of our skulls?"
The answer is plain, we do what previous slave-owning civilisatations did: We'll have orgies, lie round all day on couches and stick our fingers up our throats to make ourselves sick so we can eat more bunches of grapes, then slip off to watch some gladiators fight to the death.
Or we could follow the aristocracy's way of spending their time, with their love of nature, blasting little birds out of the sky or pursuing wild animals like foxes and deer to their deaths.
Fortunately there are other models to follow: the Athenians of course, with their democracy, learning and debate; but also, spread across the pages of history, all the great achievements of creative humanity, its music, literature, art, science and philosophy; overwhelmingly these are the children of leisure. Until fairly recently, the overwhelming mass of creative and innovative work that has contributed to our formal culture, was done by people with leisure, either because they came from the aristocracy, or were supported by the aristocracy or some other particular reason.
But you may say, thats all very well, but we can't all be artists and composers. Even if we all had the talent of Brahms or Breugal, the paintings and manuscipts would be knee deep in the streets.
And anyway, work is good: it stops us getting too introspective about things, too precious, it gives us discipline, it is a touchstone and an interface with reality. It provides social contacts of a special kind, low key companionship with people you don't necessarily think are perfect, but with whom you learn to get along on a day to day basis.
Doing simple jobs like scrubbing the potatoes is good for the soul; it lets you switch into a lower gear mentally; it's a bit like eating some fibre in your diet, you don't want to limit your intake to the most highly concentrated foods or the most highly concentrated activities or the result -- in both cases -- is constipation!
So now, having taken a quick look at the dream, lets consider
How would we fill all those hours in the day? Would we watch the telly all day? Just lie back in a floating airbed in a white room with everything we need supplied by "The Computer"?
You may ask, what is the difference between leisure and idleness? Unemployment is linked with the rise in crime, the devil finds work for idle hands, as they say.
The spectre looms of a world where robots have not only taken away our jobs, but are now going to be doing everything about the house. What will be left for us to do ourselves?
It's a terrifying nightmare: Human beings, hanging emptily in a blank sea, like a sailing ship in the Doldrums,with just the sound of flapping sails banging against the mast; marooned in time and space because our role, our place in the structure of reality, has been stolen from us and fed to the robots.
So is this what we are all striving to bring about? No wonder there is opposition. Even my own father has said to me more than once "I'm pleased the robots are going well for you, but don't you sometimes feel bad about all the people you are going to put out of work?"
Well, of course we should not ignore this problem. We can't just say "We are engineers not philosophers: we make the machines, it is up to society how it uses them."
Well, for me, the domestic robot is a dream, not a nightmare.
First of all I do not believe a single job has ever been or can ever be destroyed by a robot. Moved, yes. Exported yes. When robots, or any machines for that matter, take over a particular task, then employment within that task IS lost, and individuals certainly and obviously do lose their jobs. And of course it is not much comfort to someone who has lost their job to say "never mind, you have created a job for someone else.
But this IS the case, for the simple reason that robots are not paid wages: that is why they cannot take people's jobs: they may perform the function of a human being but they can't consume his or her wage packet: robots cannot consume! So what happens to the wage packet? Well at best it still goes to the same person, who simply moves on to do a different and hopefully more pleasant, less repetitive job.
Or else some of the money goes to pay for the machine, (creating jobs there) and some is passed onto customers by reduced prices. This puts more money into the economy and thereby creates more jobs.
At worst the Boss puts it all in the bank: But what happens to it there? Well of course the bank now has a bit more money in its vaults, and you can be sure they don't stuff it under the mattress. No, they invest it wherever it will make them and their shareholders the most money. And investment, as we are so often told, creates jobs!
Another way of looking at the same thing is to state that the number of jobs in an economy is a function of the amount of money circulating divided by the average wage, with a factor to represent speed of circulation. There is nothing in all that about who does what work, its the money which counts. We have unemployment because of the financial situation, not because there is any shortage of things to do.
And this is the point. There IS no shortage of things to do.
And what about the third world?
"The third world? Haven't they got enough people to do anything that people can do, yet alone robots? What on earth would a robot do in the third world?"
Well, the fundamental problem of course for a poor family living in the third world is the ratio of the number of pairs of hands available to do work to the number of mouths to feed.
It makes sense to have a large family because you need the labour power to do more work and to support you in old age, whatever the politicians try to persuade you.
Now, if you could get some of that labour power without having the extra mouths to feed, you would not need so many children.
Of course this is a pipedream at the moment. The peasant family doesn't have the money, the technology, the infrastructure to use robots and even if they did, a walking tractor would be much more cost effective. All I am saying is: if it could be done, it would be good, not bad. It is a dream, not a nightmare.
It is a dream that could one day allow us to look all round the surface of the earth and not have to feel ashamed at the poverty and degradation everywhere.
Making cheap robots will not in itself fulfil this dream, but it will help, it will not hinder.
And the more low-tech we make them, of course, the better from that point of view.
After all, some irrigation systems are rather like robot arms.
A robot made of bamboo is not as crazy as you might at first think.
The difference between subsistence farming and prosperity may be less than ten percent. By this I mean that if a farmer can have ten percent spare time or spare money, he or she can invest that to gradually improve
creating a virtuous circle which can eventually result in plenty and prosperity.
How can people talk about not having anything to do if the robots "take over" when the one thing this world needs above all else is labour power? OK there are other problems, the wealth is not distributed evenly, it is wasted on armaments, we may even blow ourselves to bits before anything good can be achieved but the fact remains that extra labour power without extra mouths to feed could do most of what is necessary to turn this planet into an extremely pleasant place to live.
Will we ever get to the stage when we have too much prosperity? I'd really like to know what people think of when they worry about this. Are they thinking just of the affluent West perhaps? Well let's think about the whole world, and just how far we have to go before we have to worry about being bored because there is nothing left to do.
Lets think not only about preventing people living in the Sahel from dying of thirst, but also about those people having really good houses, schools and hospitals, as good as they've got in Holywood, with green grass and swimming pools.
Am I going too far? Of course I am: but that is how far we should go before we start to worry about there being nothing left to do for us humans and our personal, helpful, friendly domestic robots.
Of course, not everyone can work on the Sahel problem and suchlike. I haven't completely answered the questions about the disturbance of our lives robots will undoubtedly cause when they take over tasks we have been doing ourselves all our lives and we find ourselves with time on our hands.
First of all, I'm not quite sure how much time they will really save us, at least at first. They will go wrong a lot, either through mechanical failure or because the software is likely to be so complex that bugs will keep turning up and unprovided-for situations occur.
The article in the paper recently about a robot waiter spilling first the soup, then its own head onto a customer and the ensuing court case is, I am sure, the first of many, many, many dreadful cockups that await us.
For decades to come we will be down there on our hands and knees with a screwdriver, plug-in keyboard, oscilloscope or whatever, trying to make the damn thing work properly, or at least not fall over.
But during this time also, a gradual adaptive process will of course take place.
People's nightmare of humanity becalmed omits the dynamic element of history, of change. The fact that we have always just come from somewhere and are always on our way to somewhere else. There always have been and always will be problems that we need to solve, improvements crying out to be done, hopes to hope for.
We will gradually do things differently, stop having some things and start having others.
Just a tiny example: if robots are merely able to clean and polish flat surfaces (and this is something I think we should aim for straight away), we might have a lot less polyurethane and plastic, we might go back to the scrubbed pine kitchen table, the brass letter box, the copper kettle and fire-irons that need polishing every week, polished silver spoons, waxed floors, all sorts of materials and systems that have either been left behind when servants were no longer available, or have never even been considered practical, could take over from what is often felt to be a plastic, sanitised world.
In many ways we could go back to the "good old days", except that this time everybody might be able to enjoy them in a way only the privileged few could before. I can imagine a large sitting room with hand-woven rugs on the floor (but fixed down very carefully so the robots don't come a cropper), hand-made furniture, stained glass windows, all sorts of hand-made tiles, light fittings, pottery, cutlery, fabrics, wall paper.
Did I say wallpaper? Well, I was thinking of those exquisitely fine filigree paintings that you and your robot design and change continuously, and the robot executes throughout the night (if it has time!).
Notice that so far I haven't even mentioned anything made in a factory or mass produced. Well no doubt there'd be video and audio entertainment and communication built in, but the point I am trying to make is that automation in general and robots in particular allow us the time to revert to less efficient means of production.
You can see this already in places like, for instance California. Of the two dozen people I know who live there, one builds guitars,(by hand) another is a painter, another a gardener, another a professor, a welfare worker, a photographer, and several retired. Noone doing a stroke of work, in terms of producing wealth! But they do work, and several of them work incredibly hard, thay have very full lives and their houses are full of handmade stuff. Their cupboards are full of handmade clothes, special shoes.
On the subject of clothes, we can expect a return to elaborate dressing, like the aristocrats of former times, even down to the lace, frills and filigree which machines have made so easy.
Its happening already with the punks. I know one who says he spends at least three hours a day on his appearence. The punk phenomenon is based on leisure of course.
If you have more time you can also spend a lot of time preparing health foods instead of convenience foods. You and your robot could spend hours every day creating exquisite concoctions of food, some of which you have grown yourself.
A garden robot is of course a real must. It moves slowly about chewing up dead leaves, manicuring the lawn, chomping up weeds sweeping the paths, checking moisture in the soil and watering when necessary, maybe checking the ph level of the soil and adjusting fertilisers. Planting grass seed on bare patches and then watering it, scaring off the birds... Toys or unknown objects are all put in a box, the tortoise is given a friendly race, other peoples cats are made unwelcome and snails are disposed of in some aesthetic way I haven't yet thought of.
This means you could actually go and sit in the garden as much or more than you go and work in it, which is quite a thought.
Talking of growing your own vegetables, I know several people who decided to go off into the depths of the countryside and live off the land, homesteading, but who gave up after a few years because it was simply too tough.
Its no fun at all being ground down by endless work at all hours and days of the week and in all weathers but with a few agricultural robots homesteading could become feasible.
If a good locomotion system, maybe four legs like a horse, could be produced, coupled with accurate navigation around the farm (and you could fix up transmitters of some sort in key positions for triangulation), a farm robot or two could make subsistence farming almost bearable -- though not for me, I should add.
No I am much more attracted to the life of art and leisure I expect the domestic robot to bring about, once we have ironed out the bugs for a decade or two.
I expect to work with my robot at painting, as I already do. I have made myself a large X,Y plotter, from Lego and curtain-rail. It makes abstract pictures based on sinewaves of all different sizes combined in semi-random form. It takes several hours to draw a section, then stops for me to alter some variables before it carries on with another part.
Then of course there is music. I can already play a simple duet with Zero 2, IGR's (Intergalactic Robots Ltd - now defunct) first production. It may not be exactly fantastic musically, but it is surprisingly exciting to do (though not to hear, I should add).
One day I shall have an electronic piano with a nice tone, like the 'real' piano I now have. It will have a heirarchical system of musical knowledge, theory, built in, and we will play duets. I will get to know what it is likely to do and it will get to know what I am likely to do. We will play without music, making it up as we go along. To some extent it will obey voice or push-button commands I give it, and to some extent it will do its own thing.
Sometimes I will shout at it for totally misunderstanding what I thought we were trying to do, and at other times I will weep with ecstacy as we make sounds, tunes, harmonies that I could never have dreamt of on my own, like conducting an orchestra with whom I am in telepathic communication.
This what excites me about the coming robotic age: the partnership of human and machine.
Of course such partnerships are not new: all musical instruments are themselves such parteners.
And the camera, the cine camera and the video camera totally revolutionised image-making beyond the painter's wildest imaginings.
Now the robot, and in particular the personal domestic robot, is waiting to do something similar to the whole of our lives. This is something I certainly do not want to miss.