In all the discussions, announcements, pronouncements, warnings and analyses of the coming robot revolution, one question has begun to pop up: what’s the difference between a robot, a kiosk and an appliance? Is there a difference? Should we care?
Well, I think one reason we get our undies in a bundle about robots is that we see this army of mechanical men marching to work, standing on production lines and standing behind counters. Somehow that image strikes me as more threatening than the other guises that robots can take. I break these form factors down into three categories: appliances, kiosks and robots.
Does the physical form of a mechanical device make a difference to our human perceptions? Does one form factor frighten us while another is acceptable? I think so, because our culture and lifestyle have taught us to accept certain things while we still find others strange. And strange = other = scary = bad. Let’s take the categories one at a time and see what they look like.
Most of us would define an appliance as a device that sits on a counter and performs a specific, limited function. Whether it’s in the kitchen (toasters, food processors, coffee machines, etc.) or in the computer center (servers, switches, etc.) these boxes do exactly what we tell them to do when we flip the switch and no more. So why is a Sushibot called a robot because it makes sushi when a Zojirushi is just an appliance that bakes bread? In terms of function, they are the same. Each of them does the work that humans did and still do. Did Suzumo call the Sushibot a robot just because it was cool and trendy?
Appliances are not scary because they do grunt work that takes time and sometimes muscle. They relieve us of these burdens so we can do other things. We humans are not afraid of our coffee makers, nor would we think to call them robots even though they perform basically the same function as a barista but without the fancy foam swirls and misspelled names on cups.
Ironically, the humans of Battlestar Galactica 2 called the Cylons “toasters” as a pejorative term. They intended this to demean the big chrome Centurions but also to remind themselves that even the Cylons with a human form factor were just machines.
These devices have been with us for a while, also and they are simply transactional robots. ATMs have made getting cash simple and we accepted them long ago for the sheer convenience. No longer did we need to get to the bank in time to cash a check or get money from an account. Banks, of course, have never been too popular so no one worried that ATMs might put bank employees out of work. Who cared, when we could get our money any time we wanted?
More recently we have seen the rise of kiosks, which are freestanding transactional robots. Kiosks have taken over airline terminals, delivering similar speed and flexibility to harried passengers. No one getting movie tickets from the Fandango kiosk in the theater lobby would call it a robot even though we may have noticed that fewer humans now stand at the ticket counter.
Fast-food companies have begun introducing ordering kiosks in their restaurants and I suspect that we will accept them quite smoothly and without a second thought for all those missing employees behind the counter. After all, they are just ATMs that dispense hamburgers instead of money. How you feel about retail checkout kiosks is up to you. I have made my opinion clear.
That leaves robots, which I will define as autonomous, mobile and intelligent. Here we enter the realm of the futuristic and often threatening. After all, our first introduction to robots came through the movies and TV shows of the fifties and sixties. At the start of the Cold War, movies reflected American fears of a takeover by Others. Most science fiction movies and TV programs seemed to include a robot.
Some were friendly—just another member of the cast—while others scared us sleepless. Remember the huge, deadly killing machines of War of the Worlds (either version)? Even Gort, the humanoid robot controlled by Michael Rennie as Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still was kind of a scary aluminum dude. He had a death ray in his cyclopean eye slit, after all. Even the Tin Man in Oz didn’t have a heart.
The frightening robots reached their apotheosis in the Terminator franchise as all the robots, computers, networks and data bases combined into the murderous Skynet. Captain Adama had a good reason for refusing to network Galactica to the rest of the fleet.
The Greater Fear
The greater fear now focuses less on surviving death rays than surviving life after a robot gets your job and you get a pink slip. Entrepreneurs, news reporters and pundits try to assuage those fears by reassuring us that more jobs will be created as new technologies emerge. This comes as cold comfort to older employees who know they will never find another job that offers (A) a career track, (B) the same salary as the previous position and/or (C) a modicum of self-respect.
The larger questions are how soon will the robot revolution will sweep across industries and how many people will be affected. Much remains to be seen.