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July 8, 2015

The Robots Are Coming — Are You Ready?

Image courtesy of (Boians Cho Joo Young) /

Could there be a robot or android in your future? More importantly, what will the ultimate effect on society be once robots start taking over. How will what has until now, been a unique human experience change? Until recently, robots, (aka androids for star Trek fans or droids for Star Wars fans)  have for the most part been relegated to factories and the living room rug. But all that is about to change. A number of firms are currently making robots that are designed to work alongside us in warehouses, retail establishments and offices. More importantly, as these droids become more autonomous, will they slowly but surely push their human counterparts out of the picture altogether? Will their growing intelligence become a threat to the human species itself, as a number of scientists believe? Whether human beings embrace these automated assistants as a boon, or people begin to rage against the machines that were meant to help them, is still too soon to tell. Love them or hate them, join me today as I take a look at the rise of the robots in the 21st century.

In the Beginning – There Were Robots, Really?

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

Robots are not a recent invention, contrary to popular opinion.  As far back as 350 B.C., robots have been a reality.  That’s when the Greek mathematician Archytas crafted a mechanical pigeon that got its motive power via steam.  The middle ages saw a number of automata created, including a robotic musical band to an automated waitress that would serve drinks. Leonardo DaVinci himself drew up detailed plans for a mechanized medieval knight.  Although it was never built, other imitators took delight in creating a number of “machines” that were designed to mystify and delight royalty and commoner alike. The main difference between these early automata and todays robots was chiefly due to the fact that with notable exceptions, these robots were only intended to mimic the living creatures around them.  They were never designed to carry out the tasks that these living creatures performed.  That all changed in 1801, when Joseph Jacquard built a totally automated loom that was programmed with punched cards.  While this innovation represented the earliest form of software, the punch card was still being used to program computers more than 200 years later.

Alan Turing Statue at Bletchley Park - - 1591025 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Alan Turing Statue at Bletchley Park – – 1591025 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was not until the Second World War was over that the digital computer was first created by Alan Turing to help the Allies beat the German Enigma code machine.  Fifteen years after the end of the war, it was also Turing that published the bookComputing Machinery and Intelligence, in which he postulated a test that was designed to determine whether a machine had attained the power of intelligent thought.  It became known as the Turing Test and to date no robot has yet passed the test. That does not mean that the rise of robot intelligence has not progressed.  Since the 1960s when the first industrial robots were introduced, automation has continued to make inroads in the industry.  Today’s auto factories are 90 percent robotized.  Amazon warehouses continue to become more automated.  (They are lobbying the FAA to let them use drones to deliver packages.)  Yet with the exception of big business, few of us work cheek to jowl with robots in the office.  Sure, you might see a Roomba Robot scurrying across the office floor in search of those ever elusive dust bunnies.  But at this juncture, if you have a secretary or office assistant, he or she is made of flesh and blood.

BeamPro Gives Remote Orders a New Meaning

While teleconferencing has been reducing the need for busy executives to fly the friendly sky, until recently the conferences were relegated to conference rooms and boardrooms.  But an enterprising company called Suitable Technologies recently introduced a 5-foot tall rolling robot called BeamProthat takes teleconferencing to the streets. (Or, at least the hallway.)  Think of BeamPro like a tablet pc on wheels, because that is essentially what it is.  The bot allows busy executives the ability not only to interface with far flung colleagues and employees, but it provides mobility that enables said executives to roam the halls of an office across town or around the world.  Equipped with webcam and speakers, BeamPro is kind of like a corporate nanny cam on steroids, since it not only allows the boss to keep watch on his staff, but it also enables the executive to interface with and direct the action of far flung staffers.

Although such a bot threatens to undermine the “While the boss is away, the staff will play” mentality prevalent at many offices, it is still a far cry from replacing said staff.  Nor does it assist the current staff in performing their duties. (Unless having a full-time robotic office Nazi can be considered helpful to overworked and underpaid employees.)  However, that doesn’t mean that help isn’t on the way.

Baxter and His Buddies Can Work Along Your Side

Office automation nay haves come a long way, but that doesn’t mean you can order a robotic office assistant that can take a letter.  But there is a robot made by Rethink Robotics named Baxter that could put a new face on your shipping department… literally.

Although science fiction often portrays robots as replacing their human counterparts, Baxter is actually designed to work alongside them.  If you have ever seen automated factories where robots are kept like caged animals that are too dangerous to be allowed near their flesh and blood coworkers, Baxter was designed from the ground up to be user (and human) friendly. The homepage at sums it up as follows,

“If you walk the floor of your facility and see lightweight parts being handled near people, you’ve likely just found a great job for Baxter.  This smart, collaborative robot is ready to get to work for your company – doing the monotonous tasks that free up your skilled human labor to be exactly that. Baxter is safe to operate next to in production environments, without the need for caging – saving money and valuable floor space.  Baxter deploys quickly and connects seamlessly to other automation – often without third party integration.  With Baxter, no traditional programming is required. Instead, it’s manually trainable by in-house staff, reducing the time and cost of third party programmers.”

Crerated with a “Monkey see, monkey do” programming subroutine where employees literally show Baxter how to accomplish a task, this in one easy-to-employ bot.  At a base price of $25,000, and his one-armed counterpart Sawyer could be just the ticket for etailers and cottage industry production facilities that perform a lot of repetitive tasks involved in everything from packaging and material handling to machine tending and line loading.  Still, with their limited mobility, tinker toy looking appendages and industrial demeanor, even these handy droids are unlikely to give your receptionist a run for her money any time soon.

Here Come the Humanoid Droids

We are still waiting (or dreading) the arrival of robots that can walk, talk and act a little more like a human being.  DARPA recently completed its Robotics Challenge where teams of human robotics experts competed for millions of dollars in prizes.  Their task was to create ambulatory robots that were required to complete a number of disaster response tasks, including driving a rescue vehicle, walking through rubble, climbing stairs and turning valves.  Twenty three teams from around the world fielded robots and three teams shared $3.5 million in prize money, including South Korea’s Team Kaist and two teams from the US, IHMC Robotics and Tartan Rescue.

While these robots can move like a human, their looks assure this writer that if you weren’t completely incapacitated, these robotic rescuers would in all likelihood scare most of us to death.

The Cute Robots Prize Goes to?

Much of the research has gone into giving robots the ability to walk and talk like people, but few have given aesthetics much thought.  However, there are a couple of notable exceptions such as motor car manufacturer Honda that has been working diligently on a lively little bipedal droid that while not exactly cute as a button, does have a persona less derivative of an industrial monstrosity.

Able to walk, talk, run, climb stairs and as President Obama discovered during a trip to Japan, kick a soccer ball, Asimo, a lively little android, has been under development for nearly 20 years.  Unlike the industrial manipulators that most bots come equipped, Asimo’s “hands” have four fingers and a thumb just like you and I.  Looking like a 4’3” astronaut, replete with backpack, this humanoid robot is not currently for sale commercially.  However, the little guy has become something of a robot ambassador, having travelled to and performed in dozens of countries worldwide.

I’m a Pepper, You’re a Pepper – Wait What’s a Pepper?

While Asimo may be a giant step in robot evolution, he is still not something you are likely to introduce to your parents.  That’s where Pepper comes in.  Designed with an emotional engine that has been designed to read everything from body language to voice inflection, this little robot is even cuter than Asimo.  Better still, the little droid has been designed with a specific purpose in mind, to be a companion.  While Pepper can’t climb stairs, it is still able to roll around on wheels set into its base.  More importantly, Pepper is for sale, at least in Japan, for around $1,600 + $200/month in service fees.  Created by Softbank and backed by Foxconn Technology Group and Alibaba, when Pepper was put on sale on June 20, 1,000 units were sold in the first minute, forcing Softbank to suspend sales.

You also need to understand what Pepper can and can’t do.  While the little droid can hold a conversation, react to your emotions and respond autonomously, he doesn’t cook, clean or vacuum the rugs.  He has one and only one task and that is to be a companion.  However, that doesn’t mean he can’t earn his keep.  Softbank mobile, one of the prime cellphone operators in Japan, as well as Pepper’s creator, have been employing him in their retail outlets as a greeter.  Last year, another Japanese firm, Nestle Japan “employed” Pepper in its appliance stores in order to sell Nescafe coffee machines.  Said, Nestle Japan’s CEO Kohzoh Takaoka,

“Pepper will be able to explain Nescafe products and services and engage in conversation with consumers.”

This autumn, Softbank and its marketing partners are expected to roll out a special business model of the robot named, “Pepper for Biz.”  The success of Softbank’s initial rollout has also propelled a number of other entrepreneurs into the game.  How long will it be before you can purchase or lease a NannyBot to mind your kids or your elderly parents?  With the government’s increased use of drones and warbots, can it be all that far off before security droids come to a warehouse near you?  And it would seem like child’s play to craft robotic lawnmowers that roll out of a truck to tend to your lawn.

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

Once the robotic genie is out of the bottle, there will be no way to put it back.  This means that robots intended to “assist” us will soon transmogrify into androids that can replace us.  As the units get more sophisticated and autonomous, will it be long before jobs currently being performed by humans are taken over by robots?  Or worse, how long will it be before robots reach a point in understanding deemed a singularity by researchers, at which point they will become self-aware.  A number of notable scientists and industrialists, including Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have warned that once robots become on par with humans on an intellectual level, there is a real possibility that they will decide that they no longer require or desire to share the planet with their human counterparts.

Once people begin to be replaced in the workplace by robots they could well rise up to picket and boycott the companies that formerly employed them.  I could see protest marches and civil disobedience taking place as people become displaced and dispossessed.   Political and religious leaders will be mobilized to thwart this inhuman form of slavery.  I can see the headlines now, “Al Sharpton takes on AI.”

Robotics and artificial intelligence are going to be the mother of all two-edged swords that the wired world will soon be forced to deal with.  Whether the verdict will ultimately be bot buddies or robot rage is still too early to compute.  But if Terry Gou of Foxconn and Jack Ma of Alibaba are right, robots could soon be as important as the automobile in the coming decades.  That means we’ll all have to deal with the debate regarding robot rights a lot sooner than you think.


Carl Weiss has been working the web to win since 1995 and has helped hundreds of companies increase their online results. He is president of W Squared Media and co-host of the weekly radio show Working the Web to Win which airs Tuesdays at 4pm Eastern on Click here to get his latest book "Working The Web to Win: When it comes to online marketing, you can't win, if you don't know how to play the game!".