Our Coming Robot Utopia

Alphabet's new robot will tidy your kitchen. But will it liberate us, or keep us prisoner?

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This week, a short essay on robots and the human Good Life.

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Okay, enough preamble; let’s get into it.


Consider two tasks, and their evolution across six decades. The first task is to name the capital of Tanzania; the second is to make a cup of tea.

So, a thought experiment: it’s 1961, and you’ve forgotten the name of the Tanzanian capital. You have that old World Atlas lying around the house somewhere; where is it? You search your bookshelves for a few minutes, and then remember that the dog ate your World Atlas.

Now what? Maybe call someone? Your friend Anna is smart; she’ll definitely know the answer. So you call Anna’s house, but end up speaking to her husband, who tells you she’s not at home at the moment. Probably, she’ll be back in three hours.

By now the need to know has become all-consuming. So you get into your car, drive to the library, walk to the geography section, find a book about Tanzania, and discover the answer: Dodoma. The capital of Tanzania is Dodoma.

Let’s replay that experiment in 2021. You want to know the capital of Tanzania. You reach for your phone.

Now, run the two experiments for making a cup of tea. You’ll notice something remarkable: unlike with the previous task, they’re both exactly the same. Across 60 years, nothing about the work required to make a cup of tea – kettle, tea bag, mug – has changed.

All this is just one angle on a state of affairs I wrote about back in The Future that Never Came. The last six decades have brought huge progress in the world of bits, but no comparable revolution in the world of atoms. In our day-to-day lives, the personal computing revolution has transformed our relationship with knowledge. But our everyday relationship with the physical world? It’s much as it was in 1961.

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This week, researchers at Alphabet claimed that this is set to change.

The Everyday Robots Project is a moonshot incubated inside the iconic X innovation lab. The project’s Chief Robot Officer, Hans Peter Brøndmo, says his team are trying to build the kind of all-purpose helper robot that’s long been promised by any number of sci-fi writers and jaunty depictions of ‘the household of tomorrow!’ A robot, that is, that can make the beds, load the dishwasher, and, yes, muster a cup of tea.

Across the last few years, says Brøndmo, the project has made significant progress. Now, a fleet of 100 autonomous robots are roaming Alphabet’s Mountain View HQ and performing useful tasks, including wiping tables and tidying away chairs. Having proven that the path they want to tread is viable, it was announced this week that Everyday Robots will move out of the X lab and into Alphabet’s Bay Area campuses.

I’ve written before on the huge challenges associated with AI embodiment, and the novel approaches under development at another division of Alphabet, DeepMind. Building robots that can navigate the complex, unstructured, changing environment that is, say, a kitchen, let alone do anything useful in that context, is hard.

But the big message this week was clear: Alphabet is getting there. There’s still a long way to go, but the age of the personal all-purpose robot is in sight. Here comes a technology that promises to do for our relationship with the physical environment what the internet, and smartphones, did for our relationship with knowledge.

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Recently I’ve been re-reading Tools for Conviviality by the social critic and philosopher Ivan Illich.

In this short but highly influential book, first published in 1973, Illich mounts a ferocious critique of technological modernity. His argument is about how we allow our technologies, or tools, to end up becoming ends rather than means.

To illustrate this, Illich reaches time and again for the last technology to effect a revolution in our personal relationship with the physical environment. That is, the car. Just look, says Illich, at what the car has done to us. It was supposed to provide efficiency, convenience, and ease. But as cars wound their way through our lives, we built societies in which it’s necessary to be able to travel long distances quickly. That meant a need for more cars, and more roads to accommodate the cars. The more cars we made, the more we needed. We made cars to help us live our lives; we ended up transforming our lives – and the places we inhabit – around the almighty car.

The arguments in Tools for Conviviality are subtle and complex; this is a simplification. Still, I can’t help read the announcement made by Everyday Robots this week without thinking of Illich’s critique.

As with the car in the early decades of the 20th-century, an emerging technology appears set to revolutionise our day-to-day relationship with the physical environment. What it promises sounds like a liberation. But will it amount, in the end, to a new kind of trap?

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But how could that be?

A robot to load the dishwasher: doesn’t that sound harmless? Wonderful, even! We all know, however, that if we let AI-fuelled robots into our lives, they won’t stop at the dishes.

One of the most common use cases imagined by roboticists is the robot as care giver, either for children or the elderly. In his announcement this week, Brøndmo makes a typical statement along these lines: ‘we imagine our robots helping us in a myriad of ways, like enabling older people to maintain their independence for longer.’

It’s not hard to imagine how a robot-fuelled project to enable older people to maintain their independence ends up playing out along Illichian lines. Imagine it: as we become used to the idea that robots can now help us care for our elderly parents and grandparents, we become less willing to fund state provision of that care through tax. That provision declines, making us more dependent on the robots. Meanwhile, we build even busier lives that further decrease the time we have available for care giving, again making us more dependent on the robots. Pretty soon it’s accepted that every elderly person needs a robot. To be without one comes to be like being without a phone today; shut out from an ever-wider array of public services and shared experiences.

And back in our hypothetical robo-utopia, our busier lives have left us with less time to care for our children, too. But no problem; there’s a robot for that! Perhaps the robot in question will be a descendent of Moxie, a robo-caregiver for children launched in the middle of last year.

Riley, there’s someone here who wants to meet you.

It’s Moxie, the robot that means Mom and Dad can ignore you for days at a time without feeling guilty about it.

Okay, that second sentence was my invention. But watch that video, and tell me that the robots being planned for us aren’t bringing Illich’s vision of a humanity diminished by its tools to a new kind of nightmarish life.

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This short essay is pegged to this week’s announcement on Everyday Robots. It might be objected that Moxie is an altogether different kind of robot. Not one meant to navigate the physical world and make itself useful around the house, but rather to understand and generate conversational language.

But make no mistake: that’s where all this is heading. The big technology companies don’t want to make robots that only load your dishwasher and wipe your tables. They want to make robots that you talk to. Robots that know you. Robots that become your friend. Sure, Hans Peter Brøndmo and his team have their eyes on the complex, unstructured terrain that is your kitchen. But it’s the complex, unstructured terrain that is your soul that Alphabet, and the other architects of our coming robo-utopia, are really questing for.

What does all this mean?

That if we’re not careful, the arrival of personal and household robots will lead to a whole new, and powerful, form of diminishment. One that estranges us – to a greater degree even than we are already – not just from the ordinary tasks of everyday life, but from each other. Such that we end up with a new technology that interposes itself between the most precious parts of our lives: our relationship with our children, or partners, or parents.

So as everyday robots approach, we should ask ourselves a series of questions. What do we want them to do for us? What don’t we want them to do? What should we do with the time they will save us? And how come the work we seem most determined to outsource to them is that associated with each other; often with our own relatives? What does that say about the technology companies who want to build these devices? What does it say about us, the intended users?

These questions all orbit around – are all ways of asking, really – the same big question. How should we live inside 21st-century technological modernity? What should we do?

It’s when we lack any kind of answers to those questions – lack even the awareness that such questions exist – that we are most at risk of Illichian diminishment by our tools. If we advance our technologies but let questions of human value fade away, we come to find ourselves in a dark crucible bounded on by our own impulses and the technologies we’ve made to satisfy them. Soon enough, those technologies establish an alien logic all of their own. And soon enough, that logic enslaves us.

In 2021, we inhabitants of advanced consumer societies are deep inside such a process. How else to explain the existence of a consumer product sold with the explicit intention that it will talk to your son when he’s sad because he’s being bullied at school?

There’s an old saying in AI and robotics. The hard things are easy, and the easy things are hard. It’s intended to capture a seeming paradox at the heart of this space. We’ve built machines that can handle the best human chess player with ease. But so far, a machine for tidying the Tupperware drawer remains elusive.

This week’s announcement from Everyday Robots represents the beginnings of Big Tech’s coming victory over that truth. Robot technologies are set to transform our day-to-day relationship with the physical world, just as the internet transformed our relationship with knowledge.

That’s a monumental shift. But underlying the work at Alphabet, and the hard questions that work must address, are questions that are harder still. What is the human Good Life? How should we live now?

Those are the questions that loom ever more insistently over us in 2021. They echo through the videos that show robots at tidying away chairs, or wiping tables, or comforting a sad little boy whose friends won’t play with him.

The ways in which we approach these questions will do much to shape our shared future. And now, we have a deadline. We must begin to find new answers, before the robots reach our houses.


Everyday People

Thanks for reading this week.

The emergence of all-purpose helper robots, and their collision with our fundamental needs and values, is a classic case of new world, same humans.

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I’ll be back as usual on Wednesday; until then, be well.

David.


David Mattin sits on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Consumption.