Just what is a robot, anyway? They began in World War II as servo mechanisms, devices that took the effort out of jobs that were strenuous if not impossible for human beings to do, such as controlling the wing and tail surfaces of bombers. A simple joy stick like those in the old open cockpit World War I fighters would demand too much strength in a bomber.
Servo mechanisms such as auto pilots on airplanes have something similar in the cruise control in my Ford Taurus, except my cruise control doesnt allow me to take a nap at the wheel. Someday they will.
We are, in fact, surrounded by automatic mechanical servants. One might argue that an automatic toaster is not a robot, but theres no disputing that the new disk-like, self-propelled vacuum cleaner now being advertised on television is a robot. It is programmable and once sent into motion does its job without human intervention.
Thats a step beyond the garden sprinkler that drags itself along, guided by its own hose, but the basic idea is similar.
Now there is a whole new generation of robots. The Japanese -- gadget fanatics -- are the great innovators. Robots come in roughly four categories: entertainment, home clean-up and guardians, industrial, and special function robots.
The entertainment gadgets are familiar to anyone who has wandered the aisles of Toys R Us -- robot dogs that bark and do tricks, humanoid-shaped robots that dance, and mechanical pets. The SDR-4X II can sing, dance, and speak with a vocabulary of 60,000 words. Thats more than in my old pocket dictionary. The SDR-4X II can recognize people by the sound of their voices and even hold a conversation. You can visit this rascal at www.tokyodv.com/news
Theres another Japanese robot called tama that roughly resembles Garfield the cat but has a practical purpose, as it can be hooked up to a cell phone and serve social workers dealing with the elderly. Imagine your robotic cat telling you its time to take your meds! Makes the Chuckie monster movies more frightening than ever.
The home alone robots can actually work as guardians. The maron-1 can help run appliances and sound an alarm if it detects an intruder.
The ifbot by Sanyo can understand human language, especially if you speak Japanese, and recognize up to 10 persons from their faces or voice.
Sounds like one of these gadgets could be trained -- excuse me, programmed -- to act as a baby sitter and call for help in case of trouble.
These are not much more than toys, but there are serious robots that do important services, such as the robotic painter that can work in an environment that would kill a human worker. Auto commercials often show assembly lines manned by robotic welders that unerringly move through their programmed routines, dont get bored or sleepy, and arent hurt by the fumes.
In case of fires or earthquakes, there are robots that can wriggle snake-like through small passages to find trapped victims, or travel inside pipelines and inspect for malfunctions, leaks, or blockages. For wartime, a robot has been developed that seeks out buried land mines and marks the earth so crews can dig them up.
Perhaps the most ambitious robot being developed uses artificial intelligence and is said to be as smart as a five year old. Anyone who has experienced a two year old in the house will wonder what mischief a robot with a five year olds intelligence might get into.
In Isaac Asimovs classic science fiction book, I Robot, machines are ethically programmed to do no harm to humans. Extended to the ultimate that meant preventing humans from any activity that might injure them, such as knitting (those needles could hurt you) and the humans become virtual prisoners of their servant machines.
Then theres the classic The Machine Stops story in which people live inside what might be termed a giant robot dwelling which repairs itself and takes care of all their needs. In the end the machine that repairs the machine itself wears out.
From what weve seen of computers and appliances, its not the wearing out and breaking down of our robotic machines thats the problem. Its the rapid obsolescence that forces us to upgrade to the newer model, the Japanese answer to Microsoft and Bill Gates. So your robot cooks only a few favorite meals and has the mentality of a five year old? Forget about macaroni and cheese dinners and games of Go Fish. Upgrade now, if you can afford the new model and want a robot that always beats you at cribbage or bridge, then makes smart remarks. No thanks.
Harley L. Sachs, author of Ben Zakkais Coffin and A Troll for Christmas at ZumayaPublications, Mystery Club cozies at Wings ePress, Scratch--out! by Fire Mountain Press and books from IDEVCO.