by Jacob E. Mendelssohn

Everyone is aware that the "Age of Robots" is approaching. Magazine articles and television shows abound with Robots and their incredible abilities. There seems little doubt that the Robots are coming, but the real question is, what will happen to them when they arrive?

Superior technology is not always welcomed. Even a relatively benign technology often encounters serious problems. A classic example is the Picture-Phone, developed some 50 years ago. It was a great idea, but the engineers who designed it didn't anticipate that people don't want to get dressed or even comb their hair before they answer the telephone. "But wait!", you might think, " Don't we have Picture-Phones now?"  Actually we don't. What we have now are phones that take pictures, but they are pictures that you take and you send and only when you want to. The original Picture-Phone was a device that transmitted both the voice and the image of both parties all the time. Anyone being heard would also be seen. Society didn't want the original Picture-Phone concept and so it had to be modified in order to be successful.

At this very moment, countless engineers are busy designing circuits and thousands of programmers are writing code that will enable Robots to walk, manipulate objects and carry on intelligent conversations. Unfortunately, the engineers and programmers may find, as did the designers of the Picture-Phone, that making the machine is sometimes just not enough. After all, Robots will not work in a vacuum. They will have to interact with people, and people are not always logical.

For seven years I was the president of a company that manufactured radio-controlled "Show-bots."  These "Show-bots" looked and acted like the very intelligent Robots of the future, but were controlled by a hidden human operator. In working closely with Robots and people--at trade shows, Bar Mitzvahs, weddings and birthday parties--I discovered a number of potential problems. In the interest of helping future Robots to survive in the real world, I offer the following observations:


VIOLENCE - Many people are so accustomed to kicking cars and punching vending machines that using violence on a machine is almost second nature. Upon encountering a Robot, some people's first response is to test its limitations, and what better way than by hitting it, kicking it or twisting its appendages. Fully mature, responsible adults have savagely abused Robots. The mayor of a major East Coast city walked right up to one Robot and punched him in the head. The hostess of a television talk show wrestled with a Robot's arm because, as she explained, "I want to see how far I can twist it before it breaks."  And, most memorable of all, was the banker who pushed a Robot into the pool to see if it could swim.

OBSERVATION #1:  People treat Robots as badly as they treat other people.


SEX - The first question people ask about a Robot is "Can it do windows?"  But later, off to the side, the real question that is foremost on everyone's mind is whispered. "Can it f---?"  This question is asked constantly, by members of both sexes of every age group. The Age of Robots may live or die on this question. New laws may be put on the books to cover this new brand of sin. In response to the demand, we even built a pornographic Robot, Model F2U2. He was a big hit at adult parties, but we finally had to abandon using him because it was so hard to keep him functioning due to all the abuse he suffered at the hands of mature, reasonable, law-abiding citizens.

OBSERVATION #2:  Windows are not the only things people have that are dirty.


GENDER - Our MAX Robot, one of several models, was about 4-1/2 feet tall, furry and had a bubbly personality. We decided to build a female Robot, a counterpart to MAX, and call her MAXINE. We added long eyelashes, red lips, and hair ribbons. With the exception of these features, MAXINE was identical to MAX.

The public loved MAX. They shook his hand, talked to him and kissed him. When people saw him, they would say, "Oh, isn't he cute!"  But when they saw his sister, MAXINE, the reaction was, "Oh, isn't she ugly!"  MAXINE was so unpopular that we finally had to scrap her. Until Robots can be made to look really good, they are better off being male.

OBSERVATION #3:  If you look unusual, it is better to be male than female.


OPERATION - The Robots were all radio controlled and were really nothing more then electronic puppets. However people were always assuming that they were more complicated then they really were. The more educated the audience, the easier they were to fool. At electronics conventions, engineers would often ask the Robot what type of microprocessor it had or what speech recognition algorithm it was using.

The Robots had lights on their chests that blinked randomly. People would stare at the lights for a long time trying to determine what significance they had and refused to believe that they were random. At one show, every time a man pushed a different button, the operator made the Robot do some thing specific, such as raise one arm, move forward or turn to the left. After 20 minutes of intently practicing the Robot "commands", the man dragged his wife over to show her how he could control the Robot. Of course, when the wife was there the operator had the Robot either not move at all or do the wrong thing when the buttons were pushed. After the wife left, the Robot magically returned to the proper button control. The man stayed with the Robot the whole day, experimenting and scratching his head. He missed the entire show and never did learn the truth.

OBSERVATION #4: People love to see more complexity then really exists.


CHILDREN - Children's reactions to Robots depends on their age. Below a certain age, usually about five years, the child thinks that the Robot is alive, since anything that moves is alive and anything that stands still is not. And no amount of explaining will change that perception. Children react to Robots the same way they react to large dogs. If the child is afraid of dogs, the child will be afraid of Robots. But if the child likes dogs, then the child will like Robots.

A child does not connect the Robot to an operator even when the operator is visible. We once worked at a birthday party where all the children were enjoying the Robot. After an hour, the operator turned off the Robot to take a short break. When he came back, the 5-year old brother of the birthday child was crying, "My friend MAX doesn't like me any more."  When the operator explained that MAX had been turned off, all he received from the child was a puzzled look and more tears. Finally, the operator told the child that MAX was just sleeping and that he would wake him up. The operator turned on the Robot and then went through a routine of shaking it and yelling, “Wake up, MAX!"  Sure enough, the Robot "woke up" and the child was happy that his friend was talking to him again.

OBSERVATION #5:  Adults look for explanations. Children look for friends.


DRUNKS - There is nothing worse than a drunk, and there is nothing that a drunk hates worse than a machine that is sober. We had several bad experiences with drunks who did everything from pouring a drink on a Robot to pushing a Robot down a flight of stairs. On one occasion, a drunk became belligerent and followed a Robot, trying to start a fight. Desperate to avoid trouble, the Robot turned away without saying anything whenever the drunk approached.

Unfortunately, this infuriated the man who shouted at the Robot, "You're not so smart. All you can do is walk around and I can do that!”, whereupon the man tripped over his own feet and passed out on the floor.

OBSERVATION #6: Robots and alcohol don't mix.


ANIMALS - Animals are not as easily fooled as people. They know immediately that a Robot is not alive, but on the other hand, they have never seen a walking chair. In general, while they don't particularly like the Robot, they aren't afraid of it. They just want to be left alone.

A film crew came to us one day and, among other things, wanted to film some shots of a Robot walking a dog. It was a simple matter to borrow a dog and put his leash in the Robot's hand. But when the Robot began moving down the street, the dog sat down and refused to budge. When a person took the leash, the dog jumped up with joy at the prospect of going for a walk. However, as soon as we gave the leash back to the Robot, the dog stopped dead. He had never been taken for a walk by a piece of furniture before and he wasn't going to let it happen now. We never did get our "walking the dog" shots.

OBSERVATION #7:  Some forms of life are harder to fool than others.


FEATURES - While our Robots had a number of features that really amused people, such as blowing up balloons and blushing when kissed, there are things that a Robot shouldn't do. We had one Robot that squirted water, much in the manner of a small water pistol, and people seemed to enjoy it. One day the Robot squirted an eight-year old boy who responded by filling a bucket with water and throwing it on the Robot. We learned a lesson:  never get into a battle you can't win. None of our Robots squirted water after that.

Another Robot shot sparks from his mouth when he talked. Unfortunately, people took this to be a sign that the Robot was either malfunctioning or, even worse, getting ready to explode. We had to abandon this feature also.

OBSERVATION #8:  Cuteness has its limits.


INTELLIGENCE - The general public is fully aware of the scientific "fact" that computers know everything. This "fact" caused problems many times. For example, once a hostess, when hiring a Robot, asked us to confirm that the Robot could talk and that if asked a question, it would answer. "Of course," we assured her. "You can actually carry on a conversation with it."  As soon as the part started, the hostess' son rushed up to the Robot and demanded, "Who was the leading left-handed home run hitter in the American League in 1963?"  The operator, who was actually controlling the Robot, didn't know the answer and so he tried to make a joke out of it by saying that he, the Robot, was the leading left-handed home run hitter in the American League in 1963. Not satisfied, the boy persisted for an hour until he finally complained to his mother. She confronted the operator and angrily demanded that the Robot tell her son the correct answer. The operator responded, "Lady, we said that the Robot would answer your questions and he has done that. We never said that he would be right."

OBSERVATION #9:  People can be fools, but their Robots had better be geniuses.


SUMMARY: As you have seen, there is more to a Robot than pure Robotics. Robots will have to function in what undoubtedly will be a rather hostile environment. Unless they manage to fit into human society and accommodate all their quirks and inconsistencies, Robots, no matter how skillfully designed and manufactured, will not survive.

The common pigeon, found in most cities, and the passenger pigeon were almost identical in size and habits. But the passenger pigeon had some seemly insignificant trait that impeded its ability to survive within modern society. The passenger pigeon is extinct and the common pigeon is flourishing. If Robot makers don't consider the insignificant details, Robots may end up in a museum display featuring Picture-Phones and other great ideas that never were.

(c) 1990   Jacob E. Mendelssohn

Jake Mendelssohn is still involved with Robotics and he likes Robots better then people, because if a Robot doesn't do what he wants, he can take it apart.