Robot Servants

Up to: Future

This is somewhat of a wishful thinking essay. The artificial intelligence problems involved in making a general purpose robot servant include unsolved conceptual problems requiring basic research. It is not possible to say when they will be solved. The mechanical engineering problems aren't solved either, but it seems to me that they are within ``development range'', i.e. solutions could be bought with money once AI advances made it worthwhile. Robots of limited utility, e.g. carriers of mail within buildings, are feasible (and in limited use in 1995), but the essay will mainly concern general purpose servant robots.

Let us suppose that general purpose household robots become available 20 years from now. Our purpose is to discuss how they would be used and how they would affect society. I am assuming they would be cheap, because if they are truly general purpose, then they can also be used to make more of them. Therefore, we can assume they would be universally available.

We imagine that household robots will have the capabilities of people but won't be people. We will discuss later the psychological characteristics we should build into them that will prevent them from being appropriate objects of either sympathy or blame.

Here are some of the effects.

1. Keeping house becomes trivial. The house or apartment will be clean and neat and things will be kept put away. We suppose that shopping also becomes trivial, either by sending the robot to the store or, more likely, by an automatic delivery system. The latter is an easier technology and will probably be available sooner than robots.

2. How much robots will affect life depends critically on the extent to which they can be used to take care of babies and children. To be acceptable in homes with children, they must at least be smart enough not to step on them or otherwise injure them even if their duties don't include child care itself. The next step is baby sitting of sleeping babies. The robot must be able to detect emergencies, remove a child from fire or other danger, and call for medical help. This should be a small step from a robot that can physically handle a baby or child without danger. Since the robot can remain alert to an extent than humans cannot, the level of physical safety will promptly become higher than is presently achieved even with parents present.

Beyond that is the level requiring linguistic interaction with the child or children. First of all, it's clear that the robot must be able to speak and understand well, otherwise the lingustic development of the child may suffer if it spends long times in robot company. Second, more subtle psychological factors must be understood and taken into account.

I now (2002 June) consider it bad to use robots for child care involving language. I fear that children will grow up regarding robots as persons. My science fiction story The robot and the baby illustrates some of my opinions, even though the story part naturally ran away from the futurism part.

3. The social effects of household robots will be profound, but the situation isn't entirely unprecedented. Namely, we must compare it with that of Victorian upper and middle classes that had servants. However, robots will be more universally available, and there are many other differences between modern society and Victorian upper class society.

However, I believe that there will be one important similarity. Robots will lead to elaboration of furnishings, dress and probably manners as well. A robot can work 24 hours a day. At first people will use them only to take over activities that the owners have previously done themselves. Next higher standard of cleanliness will become the norm. No dust will be allowed to accumulate anywhere. Minor dents will be fixed immediately. Windows will be cleaned daily.

My guess is that decoration will also tend to elaborate. Baroque objects will be cleanable, repairable and puttable away. It will be common to rearrange the furniture for each common use of a room.

Women's dress will elaborate, and everything will be sewn to order.

Men's clothing will also elaborate, though perhaps not as immediately. We will not be able to resist the services of a robot valet; it will be interesting to see whether we will also make them guardians of taste and fashion. Fans of P. G. Wodehouse may want a robot Jeeves.

We can also imagine robot porters. People will be inclined to take a robot along when they go somewhere. The robot will carry any packages and also anything the owner wants to take along. One example is a favorite chair and a book or TV in case of boredom. Clothes suitable for all anticipated occasions may be carried. Finally, the owner may want the robot to carry him or her in case he or she gets tired. At that level one robot won't be enough. When a car is used, whether driven by a human, a robot or by a built in computer, the robots going along may stand on an outside rack like footmen on a coach. Intellectuals will surely express disgust with the unnecessary luxury involved. Perhaps some will propose sumptuary laws (as the ancient Romans called them) to curb the excesses. No-one will be allowed to bring more than six robots into an opera house, even if they are programmed to stack themselves in the cloak room.

Women often want to look their very best at any social occasion. Robots will extend this capability. One of the porter robots will be a closet. Just before making an entrance a woman may step into the closet which will take off her clothes, clean her to the utmost, put on clothes most suited to the occasion, and fix her hair in the appropriate style. Indeed after going into the house, theater or restaurant, the robot may look at the others present and suggest changes in appearance. She'll duck out and the closet will make the appropriate changes in dress, make-up, etc.

Men's clothing will also elaborate, though perhaps not as immediately as women's.

Of course, society might react to servant robots in some quite other direction. The above are speculations, not predictions. Perhaps I can venture to predict that people will take some kind of advantage of the possibilities.

There may be glitches. For example, the household robot doesn't want its masters to get anything for themselves or to put anything away. "Let me do it; then I'll remember where it is when you ask me for it again." The robot will be especially assertive with children who very often forget where they put things.

Programming robots that have motivations and desires like humans or even seem to have them would be an extra task. This should be avoided so that their behavior will not tempt people, especially children, to either like or dislike them. Otherwise, people will be tempted to give them a status in society, and this will lead to all sorts of science fiction stories being acted out. What consciousness a robot will need is discussed technically in Making Robots Conscious of their Mental States.. The reasons for not making them psychologically humanoid are also discussed. Perhaps robots should take themselves apart when not in use and reassemble into different configurations when summoned for use.

Finally, what about unemployment? Won't robots take jobs away from people?

Many past inventions have increased productivity and thereby reduced employment in particular industries. For example, the fraction of the American population who are farmers today is about 2 percent; once it was 90 percent. The number of underground coal miners is down by 90 percent since the end of WWII.

However, there aren't a fixed number of jobs, and the overall rate of unemployment has been unconnected with increased productivity, both within a country and between countries. Indeed the largest rates of unemployment are in backward countries.

What if eventually robots can do all work?

Then we will all be rich. The rich have their problems but would rather be rich than poor.

I welcome comments, and you can send them to

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