Robert the Robot appeared in my house in the late 1950’s – one of my brother’s Christmas gifts. While Robert had been introduced back in 1954, and as that was the year that my brother turned one, Rob’s arrival must have been in ’58 or ’59.
Robert was composed of hard plastic, most of it silver to make it look like metal. He was “the latest” with a tethered remote control, eyes that lit up and he could walk and talk.
“I’m Robert the robot the mechanical man. Guide me and steer me wherever you can.”
He could only speak one sentence. That was one more than most toys, than any toys that I remember.
We kids thought it wouldn’t be long before a similar robot, life size, would be available with more functionality. Maybe one of those would arrive on a future Christmas.
The next robot I saw was an office mail delivery robot. It was the mid-80s and I was working at a large insurance company in Portland, Maine. There was a metal track embedded in the carpet and the robot would circle the floor once or twice a day. It stopped at programmed locations and beeped to alert the assistant to retrieve the mail and add any that needed delivery. Mostly, this robot was ignored. It was such a simpleton, could only move forward on the track, pause, and beep. It moved so slowly, no one had to worry about being run over.
A few years ago, robots were introduced on the streets of Berkeley – food delivery robots called Kiwibots. As I work in the town, I’ve seen more than one. They look like a medium size cooler with wheels and some kind of electronics up front which I read is some kind of neuro system. The more they are out on the streets, the more they learn. Smarter by the day. They have a stiff wire that extends up about five feet with a triangle flag on top, some blue, some orange, like recumbent bikes, to draw attention to their existence.
I was surprised to see a bot at the corner of Center and Shattuck, one of the busiest intersections in Berkeley. Kiwi waited at the light with the rest of us and didn’t bump into a soul – unlike some of the humans. I laughed when I saw someone had stuck a couple of bumper stickers on the sides. An “only in Berkeley” moment. I’ve since learned that people are ordering drinks from Jamba Juice and tacos from Chipotle to be delivered via robot.
Twice in the past few weeks, I’ve seen an immobile robot from my bus seat. One was on Hearst, part way up a hill. I pondered whether it was confused or whether it lacked the power to make it any further. I watched as other passengers took note. I wondered how it made people feel. Like if you’re driving down the highway and see a car that’s broken down, you feel for the people, not for the car. But I wonder if seeing a disabled robot makes people feel for the people not getting their food or does it make them feel sorry for the robot? I hope it’s not sorry for the robot. That can’t lead to anything good.