Our Lives

Whatever happened to my robot?

November 10, 2012 

Todd Jones.


Growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, we center-of-the-universe baby boomers had a gaudy smorgasbord of childhood distractions unlike any generation before us. We lived in the peak of civilization, at the pinnacle of human achievement in the nation preordained for the zenith of lifestyles, with convenience as a fundamental American right.

Humans a mere two generations prior would marvel at our mastery of flight, our dominion over nature and our aspirations that had moved far beyond rote survival.

Sexism still fully in sway, we boys were lured with the promise of astro-jobs, while girls were promised technological progress in household conveniences. But as blustery as we were about our amazing present, what we saw before us was nothing like the promise of (pause for dramatic effect) THE FUTURE.

Yes, the future held glorious portent. Robots would serve us, minerals and raw materials would flow in abundance from worlds accessible by rocket ship and the workweek would shrink into an occasional check-in to the office via wrist radio, or a quick jet in to work with our hover packs. And frankly, at the pace things were progressing, such goals seemed reasonable.

Oh sure, the future of life on the planet teetered delicately in the nuclear balance while ideologues fumed over how money should flow and where maps should be drawn, but we were going to have ROBOTS!

Hollywood already figured out the basics of how they looked, behaved, ambulated and made our lives sublime. All science had to do was fill in the wire guts and figure out how to make a mechanical brain way better than that gray squiggly mass in our heads.

So I comported myself accordingly while growing up. What was the use of learning to be organized when a robot would be taking care of that? Why should we think twice about throwing stuff in the garbage when any excess would be sent to a distant planet? Why bother learning any skills at all when we’ll just be pushing a couple buttons and letting the X-9000 do the rest?

We flew to the moon and back; we could make anything with the unlimited plastic and metal the Earth issued forth. But as I was optimizing my skill set to be a hedonistic usurper of resources and robot favors, the future pulled a fast one.

It turned out that yanking stuff out of the Earth had side effects, jaunting to nearby planets would take generations and was expensive, jet packs were unwieldy and would incinerate your legs on take-off.

And the robots? Well, I still wasn’t about to give up on the robots.

In the ’80s and ’90s, Hollywood did its best to advance robotics. False claims of bathtub fusion energy renewed my hope that the future would deliver, but ultimately, no dice. True, we were developing computers that could talk to each other across vast interconnected networks, but the Internet wasn’t about to make me a ham sandwich (with the crusts cut off and just the right amount of mustard).

Finally, and by that I mean about two decades too late, science delivered the affordable robotic vacuum cleaner. The concept was simple: Turn it on and watch as it transformed your hovel into a mansion. Perhaps a firmware upgrade and it could give backrubs as well.

Well, we got one, then another and finally a third before we realized robotic technology was no match for our household filth.

Yes, we diligently cleaned the filters and the little brushes, put it back in its charging cozy and praised its efforts. Yet each unit ultimately surrendered with the digital bleeps of a robotic death rattle.

The third one finally just crawled under the couch to die silently, its mechanical gullet full of detritus from two long-haired dogs, an eight-year-old and the filthy collision of civilized lifestyles against a backdrop of country living. The future lied.

Yeah, I know, now we have drones, bomb-defusing robots, unmanned spacecraft and robot assembly lines, but I want the Jetson’s Rosie. A little object recognition, a database to catalog how to clean everything and where to put it, some underlying directives not to kill us humans – and before you know it, we can ignore any semblance of hygiene and still live in homes that look like the cover of Architectural Digest.

C’mon science, stop trying to complete the unified field theory and cure disease at a molecular level.

Start working on making me an adorable metal companion that calculates when I’m about to run out of queso dipping sauce, queries the pantry database and if supplies are low, configures the 3D printer to fabricate up some yellow viscous suspension with cheesulose flavoring! And hurry up, I’m hungry!

As for you, Future, I liked you a whole lot better when you told us of happy things, not the imminent collapse of the polar ice caps and the inevitability of plagues born of bird droppings. I’d like to ask for a little more blind naivete and a little less Chicken Littling. After all, we’re the baby boomers – we deserve it all.


News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service