Thursday, August 11, 2011

I, Robot?

 I've always loved science fiction.  Full disclosure time here: I just spent hours trying to make my iPad look like a PADD from Star Trek!  Anyway, as a young person I spent a lot of time watching Star Trek and Jetsons reruns.   To the point that I found it very depressing that we didn't have rocket jet packs by the year 2000.  Another feature of sci- fi that always interested me was the idea of a future where robots would be our servants and humans would be freed from the mundane aspects of life.

Of course, everyone shared this belief.  I mean, Ringo even wanted Gort to become the fifth Beatle, if the album cover at left tells us anything.  And who can blame him?  Everyone wants a piece of famous robots.  To people growing up in the 1970's, the most compelling characters of the Star Wars movies were R2D2 and C3P0.  You can buy a replica R2 unit for yourself from high-end retailers, and women can even purchase the most un-sexy bathing suits of all time, if they so choose.

But let's be honest: to be able to delegate mundane tasks to a robot just makes so much sense.  This, of course, is why modern industrial robots (and there are over 8 million of them) have increased manufacturing efficiency (at the cost of jobs for real humans, of course). 

I've been particularly interested in this since my first visit to the Subaru plant in Lafayette, Indiana in the early '90's. First of all, if you have the chance to go to a car factory, you really should.  They are massive places, and you can actually watch a car go from random pieces of metal to driving out the door.  And besides the overhead conveyor belts carrying automobile carcasses through the facility, there are lots of really cool robots doing painting, assembly, welding and other tasks.  Ever since, I wondered when smaller robots would come to our aid around the home.

And then, a couple of years later, they proliferated!  The first one I heard of was the robotic swimming pool cleaner. These little chaps walk along the bottom of your pool (under water) and clean it for you.   Then came the robot vacuum cleaner, which can be programmed to sweep your floors, and even moves around your furniture.  Considering that vacuuming has always been one of my household chores, this seems very intriguing.  Plus, it could give the cats some amusement...

Since the Sassy Librarian and I bought to our dream house, I have come to love the process of mowing the lawn--something I had never done before we moved here.  I love riding around on my lawn tractor and I look forward all week to getting some "seat time".  But what if---I mean, you don't think--oh my!  They make robot lawnmowers now, too!  They wouldn't work on our property (too much land) but for a typical suburban house, this would be unbelievably awesome. I'm sure it won't be long before a professional sports team fires their head groundskeeper and replaces him with one of these babies.  I can hear the announcers talking now: "The umpires just consulted with the Robot Lawnmower to see what the rain forecast is."  The future is right around the corner.

So just as I had begun to think that there were very few jobs left that were safe from robots, I almost drove my car off the road when I saw a billboard promoting the local hospital's new service: Robotic Hysterectomies.  At first I scoffed, in my typical Phil Donahue feminist style, "I bet you won't find them doing robot vasectomies." But apparently the hospital uses robots for lots of other procedures, too, including some that only apply to men.  The surgeries actually employ a human doctor to operate the robot, but still, it just sounds so unpleasant.  I mean, if I was going to go have a major organ removed, I would prefer that a person was responsible, not a machine.  And what if you got a robot with problems, like Marvin, the Paranoid Android? I would hate to have my robot surgeon whining "brain the size of a planet, and all they ask me to do is remove this guy's enlarged prostate."  And who do you sue when they screw up?  I mean, medical malpractice is as close as most of us will ever come to winning the lottery.  And I bet Marvin has a brilliant team of lawyers, too...

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