With every year that passes, I continue to lower my expectations about what the future will bring, especially when it comes to technology. The movies of my childhood promised me flying cars, hoverboards, and most importantly, robots, and while the future has failed to deliver on all of these fronts, nothing is more disappointing than the lackluster progress with robots.
Now, I know we have some robots, but they’re currently living (well, existing) at either end of a wide spectrum: At one end, we have space-exploring robots and heart-surgery robots and other important shit like that. Then, at the other, we have basically useless robots that serve as children’s toys with no practical function. But what about the middle ground? Where’s that sweet spot of robots that will perform the menial, everyday tasks that I have no desire to perform myself? And I don’t just mean a Roomba, I mean something that vacuums the floors and folds the laundry and whips up a nice meal for two with whatever’s still lurking in the fridge.
In other words, where the fuck is the robot from Rocky IV, which didn’t save lives or solve the mysteries of the universe, but did at least know how to fetch Paulie a beer, and do it with class?
Why don’t I have this robot in my life yet? And when the hell am I going to get it?
According to futurist Amy Zalman, CEO of the foresight consulting firm Prescient, in their present state, “Robots have been notoriously poor at doing those things that humans are good at and vice versa. So they can calculate pi in their heads, but they actually can’t pick up laundry or bring you a beer.” Part of this is demand: As we humans haven’t expressed a serious demand for beer-fetching robots (a fact I dispute, for the record), there has been little need to make them. Take, for example, the dishwasher: Despite the fact that early dishwashers date all the way back to the mid-1800s, they weren’t commonplace in American homes until the 1970s. It took more than a hundred years for the technology to advance, for the cost to go down and for the public to catch on that the dishwasher was a great thing to have in their homes.
Right now, the closest thing we have to that futuristic vision of a beer-fetching robot is the aforementioned Roomba, in that they’re a somewhat commonplace robot to find in someone’s home and they perform a task that most of us are capable of performing, we just don’t want to. But the thing is, it also saves a legitimate amount of time, as vacuuming can take up to 20 minutes or so, depending on the size of your home. Whereas a beer-fetching robot — though inarguably useful — would only save someone about 30 seconds.
The good news is, all the beer-fetching tech we need already exists, according to robotics professor Kaspar Althoefer, who teaches at the Centre for Advanced Robotics at Queen Mary University of London. We just need someone knowledgeable in robots to make it all work together, Althoefer explains. He continues that if you mounted a robotic arm — like those used by the disabled — onto something like a Roomba, then combined it with Alexa-like technology so that it could recognize your voice commands, then added a camera capable of identifying and distinguishing beer from other items in the fridge, you’d have your robot, and it could likely get you a beer no problem.
But there are several obstacles to overcome, one of which are stairs. Stairs are still very difficult for robots to manage, so such a machine could only work if your fridge and couch were on the same floor of your home. It also might have trouble opening the fridge, thanks to the fairly weak state of presently available robotic arms. That means that you might need to install a door-opening mechanism on your fridge to get the robot to perform its duty.
And even if you did overcome all that, Althoefer explains, “While the robot would be able to get you a beer, it very likely couldn’t do anything else.” So it couldn’t cook for you, or grab vegetables from the crisper drawer, nor would you be able to “teach” it how to do any of those other tasks, as learning robots are still very rudimentary. Just consider this hot-dog-grilling robot built by researchers at Boston University. To get this thing to grill a single hotdog, the researchers had to go through a ridiculously long and complicated process of “reinforcement learning,” which means they had to build an A.I. for the robot to be able to learn from its mistakes — which were numerous — so that it would eventually be able to master the task of just grilling a fucking hotdog. Eventually, the robot was able to perform the function, but holy shit, just look at this thing. It’s ridiculous.
Basically, without going to robotics school for eight years, you’re not going to be able to teach a robot squat, so just forget about that. It’s got to be a one-function, beer-retrieval unit, and even just that would be obscenely expensive. Althoefer says, “Altogether, such a robot might cost [$15,000], and if you needed something with a sturdier base or arm, it might be another [$6,300] or so more.” And again, all this robot could do was fetch a beer (and maybe a can of Coke, if you programmed in a bunch of labels it could recognize).
For such a robot to become affordable, it would need to be mass produced, but there’s quite a bit that would go into that. As Zalman explains, “First, you’d need maturation of the technology.” Essentially, some inventor would have to get the tech to where it needs to be, and then demonstrate its usefulness, which likely means it would also have to do stuff like fold your clothes and other undesirable home tasks, not just beer-grabbin’.
Once its usefulness had been demonstrated, Zalman says people who have the money and people in need would likely be the first to adopt. So not only would rich prizefighters like Rocky Balboa buy these robots, the elderly and disabled who cannot perform the tasks for themselves would likely be early adopters, too.
Like most other technological advances, it would likely then follow the technology adoption curve, explains futurist Glen Hiemstra. This cycle begins with “innovators” and “early adopters” getting the technology first, then the “early majority” and the “late majority,” followed by the “laggards.”
To get our beer bot, Hiemstra says we’d need to see improvements in the dexterity and balance of robots, so that they could navigate things like stairs and the complex layouts of our homes. To do this, it may end up having to be a humanoid or insect-like robot, as opposed to it being on wheels. Once again, such a robot would also have to be able to perform several tasks around the home so that its usefulness was clear. Hiemstra explains that robotics of this sort are anywhere from 20 to 40 years away from our present technology, though the good news is that, “while it likely would be expensive at first, I don’t believe it would be thousands upon thousands of dollars, and that’s because computing technology is becoming cheaper and cheaper.”
But even then, that would just get it to where the innovators and early adopters are buying them. From there, Hiemstra says it might take another 20 years for the tech to become more mainstream. All told, it might be another 60 years or so until America catches up with Sylvester Stallone’s futuristic vision of 1985. In the meantime, we’ll just have to keep getting our asses off the couch and hoping that maybe our grandchildren will get the future that had so falsely been promised to us.