Robotic hand pressing a keyboard on a laptop 3D rendering

The Robot: Extraordinary ordinary things

It may seem odd to suggest that the robot should legitimately qualify as an extraordinary ordinary thing. For most people, the term “robot” most likely conjures up the image of a clumsily massive whirling humanoid-like machine, which is not something we commonly encounter every day. Moreover, the robot is often viewed as something malevolent and to be feared.

In recent years, the more modern term “bot,” short for robot, may have somewhat modified this disconcerting perception. Most people have certainly heard of robots used in industry, such as in assembling motorcars (robotic arms). They also certainly know that such robots in no way resemble humans and are incapable of deliberately doing human beings any harm.

While the term “robot” was coined only in the early 20th century, the concept of a robot, humanoid or otherwise, goes back centuries and even millennia.

Given its long history and its past, present, and projected near- and long-term future impact on society, I believe the robot unquestionably deserves a place of honor on the list of what I like to call “extraordinary ordinary things.”

What Is a Robot?

“Robot” is one of those words (like so many others) that people feel they know what it means, but when put to defining it, they seem incapable of doing so. Such definitions range from the very general to the very specific.

The difficulty is compounded by the fact that since the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the 1700s, and especially since the early 1900s, so many things we are familiar with and use every day have become automated. To wash the dishes, you simply turn a knob to set the cycle, press the start button, and the machine (dishwasher) does the rest. Likewise, there is a machine for cooking food (oven), regulating air temperature (thermostatic boiler), cleaning soiled garments (clothes washer), etc.

Are these devices automated machines, robots, or both? Companies involved in researching, designing, manufacturing, and marketing such devices have rather different ideas on the subject.

For this essay, I am going to use the most general definition of a robot I have found.

A robot is any mechanical device that, once put into action by a human being, performs one or more additional tasks with no further human intervention.

Depending on one’s point of view, these words may also define any process automated by a machine.

To people of a certain age and cultural heritage, the term  “automat” may spring to mind. If you don’t know, an automat was a designated cafeteria where food was purchased by inserting coins to open windows and withdrawing the plates within. A small staff in the back kept the many windows well stocked. Arising in the early 1900s, automats were particularly associated with the increasingly fast pace of life in the then-burgeoning New York City. They were displaced in the 1940s and 1950s by fast-food restaurants such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Nathans, etc. Nevertheless, there are recent indications that automats may be making a comeback.

To avoid entering into the ongoing polemic about terminology, this essay will use the very general definition already cited above.

Given this definition, we can see how what is generally considered to be a rather recent innovation dates back virtually to the dawn of human history.

For example, something as simple as an hourglass might be considered to be a robot. The instrument is inverted so that the time element (sand or water) begins to flow downward under the force of gravity. When there is no more of the timing element to flow, it stops. The only human intervention was at the very beginning of the process, i.e., to put the hourglass into position so that it could fulfill its function. No further intervention was required.

The same thing might be said of a pendulum. The human intervention is to move the weight away from the plumb (vertical), after which the pendulum’s arm continues to swing, moving back and forth under the force of gravity until it eventually stops. No further intervention is required.

Editor's Note: It is interesting to note that pendulums were essential to the development of mechanical clocks that could track time for days or even a week or more, unlike the aptly named hourglasses, which could track time for much shorter periods. They also provided a tool to experimentally demonstrate the long-held hypothesis going back to the Ancient Greeks that the Earth rotates on its axis (Foucault pendulum).

But while the concept of the robot might be said to date back millennia, the term “robot” itself is barely more than a century old. The first use of the term occurred in 1921 in “R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots),” a play written by Czech author Karl Čapek about mechanical humanoids that are built to work tirelessly on factory assembly lines but end up rebelling against their human masters. The term robot derives from the Czech word for “slave.”

The term “robotics” (the study and manufacture of robots) was coined by Russian-born American biochemist and nonpareil science-fiction author Isaac Asimov (1920–1992). He first used the now-ubiquitous term in his 1942 short story “Runabout.”

Asimov had a much brighter and more optimistic opinion of the robot’s role in human society than did Czech playwright Čapek. He generally characterized the robots in his short stories as helpful servants of humans, and viewed them as “a better, cleaner race.” However, he was not indifferent to the possible dangers inherent in robots. This is why the robots in his short stories are all constrained to obey what he called the “Laws of Robotics” to ensure they could never rebel and do harm.

Asimov’s attitude toward robots and their developing importance to human society was probably best expressed in his classic sci-fi book I, Robot (1950), a highly readable collection of short stories that trace the development of robots and robotics from the present day well into the future. In his book, he defined the three fundamental laws of robotics.

  • First Law of Robotics

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

  • Second Law of Robotics

A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

  • Third Law of Robotics

A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Asimov, however, was not one hundred percent sanguine about the three laws ensuring that humans and robots would forever remain in their assigned places on the hierarchy. He expressed this concern in a superb short story titled simply “Reason.”

“Reason” recounts the intellectual confrontation between two astronauts manning a space station to channel solar energy back to an overcrowded Earth and one of their robot workers. The astronauts Donavan and Powell had assembled the robot from components sent from Earth about a week earlier.

This is an advanced robot compared to the others already working on the station. To their surprise, Cutie (QT-1) has the intellectual capacity to speculate on its existence and on that of its human “masters.” Based on pure reason, the robot concludes that the two humans could not possibly be his masters. The following discourse between Cutie and the astronauts has been abbreviated for this essay, but nothing of importance has been left out.

Cutie: “I have spent the last two days in concentrated introspection and the results have been most interesting. I began it at the one sure assumption that I felt permitted to make. I, myself, exist because I think. And the question that immediately arose was: Just what is the cause of my existence?

Powell: “You’re being foolish. I told you already that we made you. And if you don’t believe us, we’ll gladly take you apart.”

Cutie: “I accept nothing on authority. A hypothesis must be backed by reason or else it is worthless—and it goes against all the dictates of logic to suppose that you made me.

“Look at you. I say this in no spirit of contempt, but look at you! The material you are made of is soft and flabby, lacking endurance and strength, depending for energy on the inefficient oxidation of organic material—like that! (Cutie points a disapproving finger at Donavon’s unfinished sandwich). Periodically you pass into a coma and the least variation of temperature, pressure, humidity, or radiation intensity impairs your efficiency.

“I, on the other hand, am a finished product. I absorb electrical energy directly and use it with almost 100 percent efficiency. I am composed of strong metal, am continuously conscious, and can stand extremes. These are facts which, with the self-evident proposition that no being can create another being superior to itself, smash your silly hypothesis to nothing.”

You may already have noticed the reference to two important philosophical precepts.

  • René Descartes’ famous: “I think; therefore, I am” (Cogito ergo sum).
  • No being can create another being superior to itself, a fundamental creationist argument against evolution.

Cutie extends his logic to decide that space, stars, and the planets beyond the space station do not exist. He invents his own religion. Since everything on the station is dedicated to keeping the apparatus that is collecting energy from the Sun in good working order, this must be the Master and Cutie is his prophet. Donavan and Powell, the two astronauts, are simply earlier creations of the Master, which have now been superseded by robots. Thus, their commands can be ignored.

All attempts by Donavan and Powell to dissuade Cutie fail. Despite the robot’s intransigence, the tale nevertheless has a felicitous ending.

Robots in Culture

Whether or not you are obsessed with robots (most people aren’t), there is perhaps a surprising number of robots with which people are familiar but without really being aware of it.

Remember, robots don’t have to be humanoid. They can take any shape, e.g., the smartwatch worn on the wrist, the smartphone carried in a pocket, the alarm clock on a bedside table, the cruise control in a car, the “daemon” background processes services populating operating systems that render service when activated by a request message, etc.

However, it is the humanoid variety that most people are familiar with because, in many people’s hearts of hearts, they are the ones most to be mistrusted and even feared. Here is an abbreviated list of well-known robots, all of which are more or less humanoid.

  • Tin Man (“Wizard of Oz”)
  • Leonardo’s Robot Mechanical Knight is a humanoid automaton designed and possibly constructed by Leonardo da Vinci around the year 1495.
  • Marvin, the paranoid android, in Douglas Adams’ classic science-fiction spoof The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
  • Frankenstein’s Monster. To clear up a common misconception, in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Dr. Victor Frankenstein was not a monster, but the creator of the monster. The monster itself had no name.
  • Robbie, the robot in the classic science-fiction film “Forbidden Planet”
  • Rosie, in the TV cartoon series “The Jetsons”
  • Cylons, in the TV series “Battlestar Galactica”
  • R2D2 and C3PO (“Star Wars”)
  • Lieutenant Commander Data in the TV series “Star Trek, the Second Generation”

Lieutenant Commander Data deserves special attention. In what is widely considered one of the best episodes of the iconic TV series, the question is raised as to whether Data is only a machine with no right to exist, i.e., can he be shut off without his consent, or is he so advanced as to have become a sentient being endowed with all the rights of all other sentient beings. This is a difficult question to answer because Data was conceived as a machine but acts as if he were something more. Sub rosa, this also deals with the question of whether robots can be trusted or if they are enemies of mankind just lying in wait to take over the world. In the end, after an impassioned speech by Captain James Kirk, the review panel rules Data sentient.

(If you enter “Star Trek” + “the measure of a man” into any search engine, you will find several clips from the episode plus numerous commentaries about it. It is well worth taking a look.)

Quotations About Robots

You can often learn a lot about the impact of an invention on society by listening to what people have said about its evolution and integration into daily life. Here are some quotations about the robot to prove the point.

“Conventional robots are made of rigid parts that are vulnerable to bumps, scrapes, twists, and falls. In contrast, researchers worldwide are increasingly developing robots made from soft elastic, plastic, and rubber that are inspired by worms, starfish, and octopuses. These soft robots can resist many of the kinds of damage, and can squirm past many of the obstacles, that can impede hard robots.”—Charles Q. Choi

“Robotics, once the almost exclusive purview of science fiction, is now approaching a point at which it will be capable of dramatic influence over humanity. These advancements are as much a lesson in caution as in the wonder of the human imagination.—Nate Church

“Man is a robot with defects.”—Emil Cioran

“Because salaries are likely to stagnate as minimum-wage hikes will stimulate the use of more robots. Corporate profits will balloon. Labor unions may disappear or be forced to make wholesale changes, as unemployment is likely to rise. And because robots don’t pay taxes, the government must discover additional revenue streams.”—Gregory Clay

“Younger generations of children have more experience with robots than senior citizens, whether that experience comes from having a robotic cleaner in the house or being involved with the increasing number of robotics programs in schools across the nation. This could probably explain why younger generations tend to have less fear of robots becoming overlords one day.”—Mat Coleman

“If you don’t want a generation of robots, fund the arts!”—Cath Crowley

“Humans aren’t machines. We feel, we love, we cry, we despair, and we rejoice. Anyone who’s ever tried to convince me not to feel is someone I shouldn’t have trusted. The only reason you should shut off your emotions and emulate a robot is if you’re doing horrible things.”—Bruce Crown

“We are survival machines, robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.”—Richard Dawkins

“This is what we mean when we talk about ‘robots.’ We’re talking about cognitive abilities, not the fact that they’re made of metal instead of flesh and powered by electricity instead of chicken nuggets.”—Keven Drum

“Sometime in the next 40 years, robots are going to take your job. I don’t care what your job is. If you dig ditches, a robot will dig them better. If you’re a magazine writer, a robot will write your articles better. If you’re a doctor, IBM’s Watson will no longer ’assist’ you in finding the right diagnosis from its database of millions of case studies and journal articles. It will just be a better doctor than you.”—Keven Drum

“The machine has no feelings, it feels no fear and no hope . . . it operates according to the pure logic of probability. For this reason, I assert that the robot perceives more accurately than man.”—Max Frisch

“The danger of the past was that men became slaves. The danger of the future is that men may become robots.”—Erich Fromm

“Unfortunately, robots capable of manufacturing robots do not exist. That would be the philosopher’s stone, the squaring of the circle.”—Ernst Jünger

“First, no one is going to accidentally build a robot that wants to rule the world . . . Creating a robot that can suddenly take over is like someone accidentally building a 747 jetliner.”—Michio Kaku

“Next to robots, humans are pretty stupid. Stupid in the sense that they can’t hold the vast quantities of data that their machine counterparts can. So when it comes to humans and robots working together, there’s a clear mismatch in abilities.”—Hugh Langley

“Will robots inherit the earth? Yes, but they will be our children.”—Marvin Minsky

“A human is a machine made of meat.”—Marvin Minsky

“Man lives like a robot: mechanically efficient, but with no awareness.”—Osho

“The higher the minimum wage goes, the lower the threshold will go for robots to replace humans in many minimum-wage roles.”—Tom Purcell

“Some researchers argue that we can seal the machines inside a kind of firewall, using them to answer difficult questions but never allowing them to affect the real world. (Of course, this means giving up on superintelligent robots!) Unfortunately, that plan seems unlikely to work: we have yet to invent a firewall that is secure against ordinary humans, let alone superintelligent machines.”—Stuart Russell

“I always thought the key to immortality would be, like, tiny robots fixing things in your brain.”—Robin Sloan

“Robotics is a technology that doesn’t inherently have any good or bad effects to it. You could use a hammer to hit a nail, or you can use a hammer to hurt somebody.”—Shyam Sundar

“Don’t think of robots as replacements for humans; think of them as things that will help make us better at tackling many of the problems we face.”—Eoin Treacy

“First, stop thinking of robots. A robot is a container for AI, sometimes mimicking the human form, sometimes not. But the AI itself is the computer inside the robot. AI is the brain, and the robot is its body, if it even has a body.”—Tim Urban

“Robots building robots. Now that’s just stupid.”—Jeff Vintar

“If a robot could genuinely love a person, what responsibility does that person hold toward that mecha/robot in return?”—Ian Watson

“The world of the future will be an even more demanding struggle against the limitations of our intelligence, not a comfortable hammock in which we can lie down to be waited upon by our robot slaves.”—Norbert Wiener

Where Do We Go From Here?

Robotics and the types of robots being produced are changing so fast that predicting where they will go is difficult, even in the near term, let alone in the medium term and long term. It is nevertheless still possible to make some very broad (and therefore perhaps not really useful) predictions. But to do so, we probably first need to better define our terms.

At the outset, a robot was defined as any mechanical device that once put into action by a human being performs one or more additional tasks with no further human intervention. While perhaps still valid at the deepest possible level, this is far from how people think of robots today.

An up-to-date and forward-looking definition would be “A robot is a machine that performs tasks typically initiated and completed by humans.” That is, in many instances, a robot does not complete a task but acts as a bridge between something a human is currently doing and what they will want to do as a result of the robot’s intermediate intervention.

To fulfill this role, present-day and future robots must have at least the following four characteristics in common:

  • Display a physical form made of mechanical parts or a representational form as a software agent
  • Have some sort of mobility
  • Use some form of programming to specify its function
  • Be capable of adapting to its surroundings

None of these specifications require that a robot be humanoid. For robots to fulfill their near-term, medium-term, and long-term potential to serve mankind rather than to become its masters, the emotionally charged picture adduced by the word robot must be reduced, if not eradicated, from the popular mind.

However, they are defined and classified, robots are now entering fields of human activity barely imaginable a decade or so ago and certainly will continue to do so. But what will probably remain a constant is the critical question: Will that future be better or worse for mankind?

The answer, of course, is: It will be both.

Similar to the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, the expanding integration of robots into daily life will mean the loss of certain types of jobs and the expansion of others. Whether this will be a boon or a bane depends largely on two factors:

  1. Will my particular job be enhanced or diminished?
  2. How will society provide for those whose jobs will be diminished or eliminated?

Of the two, the second is probably the more important question. People facing job loss can hardly be blamed for fearing, and perhaps even fighting against, the robotization of society. And, like the Luddites of the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, they could actively oppose the change, even resorting to violence.

Editor’s Note: The term Luddites refers to members of any of the bands of English workers who in the period from 1811–1816 destroyed machinery, especially in cotton and woolen mills, for fear that they would take away their jobs and leave them in poverty. They became known as Luddites in honor of Ned Ludd, a mythical figure who was said to have destroyed his loom in protest.

To prognosticate (“guess” would be a better word) the future of robots and robotics, it is necessary to have a reasonably good idea of the status quo.

In an article published in October 2022, Mike Thomas, a technology writer and software industry watcher, laid out some basic criteria. As he noted,

“Robots are already assisting humans in completing major surgeries, rescue operations, and climate explorations.”

“Contrary to people’s tendency to paint robots in a human light, it’s a degree of inhumanness that defines robots. The ways robots fall short of or surpass human abilities will shape the future of human-robot relationships . . . .”

Thomas then goes on to define six classes of robots.

  1. Pre-programmed robots receive commands before performing a task and cannot change their behavior while in action. They are best suited for completing a single, repetitive task.
  2. Humanoid robots have human-like physical features, including facial expressions, making them ideal for service jobs that require face-to-face human interaction.
  3. Autonomous robots perform actions and make decisions without human intervention.
  4. Teleoperated robots are remotely controlled through a wireless system. They are used for high-risk actions in extreme environments.
  5. Augmenting robots are informally known as cyborgs. They enhance human capabilities or replace a lost capability. Robotic exoskeletons are one example.
  6. Software bots are computer applications that use pieces of code to independently complete actions.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Robots

The problems surrounding the future of robots and robotics are complicated, evoking both hope and fear from different parties. While there is no doubt that robotics will be part of our future, their impact on humans remains quite uncertain. However, their likely effect can be analyzed and loosely predicted in light of two broad parameters: likely advantages to society and likely detriments to society.

Advantages of Robots

  • Innovation

Robotics is inherently interdisciplinary, which can often lead to innovation. Improvements in computing power have improved computer vision and natural language processing, which in turn has enabled robots to better compile and learn from visual data. In short, robotics will continue to encourage other disciplines to move beyond the limits of current knowledge and seek further innovation.

  • Support

It is only human for some workers to view robots as replacements for their jobs. On the other hand, many are finding robots to provide complementary support to their jobs, especially by handling repetitive, mundane tasks that require little intellectual input. Collaborative robots, or cobots, allow employees to reallocate more time and energy toward more complex, reflective activities.

  • Opportunity

While robots will unquestionably expunge some jobs from the employment landscape, they will simultaneously make room for new, higher-level jobs. The outlook seems particularly bright for technology jobs. Why? Because for every worker replaced by a robot, companies will need to hire someone to install, maintain, and continually adapt robotics technology. Likewise, for companies suffering from a shrinking workforce, robotics can be an opportunity to automate operations.

Disadvantages of robots

  • Privacy and security

Robotics comes with a range of potential security threats, notably increased surveillance and social engineering. Political and business leaders will have to be constantly on the qui vive for worst-case scenarios while enforcing safety and ethical regulations.  Sadly, history has demonstrated that however unlikely, worst-case scenarios have an unnerving habit of eventually happening.

  • Unfamiliar technologies

Robots may lead to an increased demand for skilled employees to maintain robotics technology. However, at present many employees lack the skills needed for these jobs. It will thus be necessary to retrain employees to meet these new demands. Those who cannot be easily and cost-efficiently retrained will inevitably be left behind, either by their status in the company being reduced (and probably along with their income), or simply being let go to find employment elsewhere.

  • Risk of deskilling

Some people worry about the increasing use of robots leading to “deskilling,” i.e., loss of skills because we let machines do too many jobs for us rather than doing them ourselves. It is said that children are losing their arithmetic skills because they can use calculators instead. Drivers no longer know how to operate stick-shift cars because most cars come with automatic transmissions. Drivers of driverless cars will lose their driving skills and become more dangerous if called on to take control. Most recently, people have begun to fear that GPT bots will deprive children of the practice of writing and maybe critical thinking.

Forestalling Catastrophe

It is clear that the impact of robots and robotics on human society will be significant, and that their consequences will be felt sooner rather than later. Nevertheless, in all the research I did while preparing this essay, I found essentially nothing in the way of practical suggestions and policy changes that could smooth the way and minimize the changes that could do damage to the inevitable “losers.”

I must admit that I have given little thought to the matter, but certain possible social policy initiatives immediately spring to mind. Working out the details will of course be extremely difficult (computers will help). However, if no thought is given to it at all, we may drift into a disaster. Here are three social initiatives that I think should be given serious consideration.

  • Retirement

Retirement is an issue because, with declining birth rates, there will be fewer workers and more pensioners. In the long term, robots will be needed to maintain living standards. In the short term, robots may completely take over certain jobs whose job holders, according to their circumstances, would have to decide either to retrain for something else or take early retirement. To protect those who retire early, some kind of “obsolescence bonus” might be introduced, i.e., a pension that ensures a decent retirement no matter the age or the years of active work accomplished before the function disappears. This means someone who is technologically retired at the age of 45 might get the same pension income as someone who retires at 65, which would go against the current retirement systems in virtually every county in the world.

  • Retraining

Many people would simply not wish to retire even with a sustainable income. They would wish to continue working. Thus, people whose jobs and livelihoods are likely to be automated out of existence must be offered appropriate retraining for new and different jobs. This must not be the sole responsibility of the companies and organizations where robotics will make certain jobs obsolete, because there may simply not be anywhere else to put such people within the company or organization no matter how well they are retrained. It must include pinpointing other companies and organizations where personnel are needed to fill recognized functions, which are currently understaffed, and a guarantee of a job offer once the retraining is successfully completed.

  • Relocation

Accepting a new job must not be site-specific. If it means pulling up stakes and moving to another town, city, or even country, adequate subsidies for the costs of moving, finding new accommodations, and living costs during retraining and settling into a new job must be provided.

These thoughts (they are not yet mature enough to be called recommendations) are all related to how robots and robotics will impact the world of work. Robots and robotics will certainly affect society on a broader level than just work. However, in all the research I have done, virtually every text I have found gives work pride of place.

I will therefore leave the subject here. As readers of this essay, your thoughts on the matter would be enthusiastically welcomed. Also if you know of any papers and essays that have useful things to say about these other implications, please share their names and links in the comments.