Long before there was Gort in the original version of, ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’, or ‘the Robot’ in television’s “Lost in Space”, or the droids of ‘Star Wars’, there was Robby the Robot who first appeared in the 1956 film, ‘Forbidden Planet’. Robby subsequently made a number of appearances in other Sci-fi movies and television programs, before becoming so much studio junk sold at auction.
While there had been a few robots in earlier science fiction depictions, they were mostly men dressed up in cardboard boxes sprayed silver or gray, with clothes-dryer venting over their arms and legs, and typically heavy rubber gloves. But Robby was different, even though he really had a man inside making various gadgets work, and doing the walking and arm movements, Robby actually looked like a real robot, or what at least I, as a very young boy (at the time), thought a real robot might look like at some time in the future. While Robby has some great ‘defensive capabilities’ he was programmed to be ‘of assistance’ and to accomplish many tasks that his human companions could never accomplish, even though Robby got everything done in minutes and hours instead of days, years or eons.
For me, that was what Robby was all about, being a helpful assistant capable of helping in ways that only ‘a Robot’ could. This is the point at which I tell you to grab your iPhone and push the button so that Apple’s Siri (no matter what voice you have assigned) asks “What can I help you with?” As with Robby the Robot, Siri is here to ‘help’, to provide personal assistance (of at least information of one form or another).
Robby was not only a robot, but a computing machine, even though at times he sounded like an old accounting machine like the one shown here. I remember that my dad’s office had a machine like this, and a full-time employee who ran it (to do what, I have noooooo idea.) It would clank and calmer, and make the most obnoxious noises as the carriage moved up and down with each computing cycle.
That accounting machine was in effect a mechanical computer, in exactly the same way that the wheels and dials, and air driven flaps and valves inside Robby the Robot’s glass dome made the same noises when either he had to ‘stop and think’ to answer some highly complex question, or he was challenged with conflicting data or directions.
Siri relies upon the microprocessor within our Apple iPhone to perform the computational functions necessary to garner the information requested from either the contents of the phone, or internet resources. What if Siri had access, via either the phone’s internet or maybe even blue tooth connection to a much more powerful computer, a true ‘learning computer’ that has been studying a good long time, ‘everything’ there is to know? And what if that learning computer had the capacity to go beyond simply absorbing known information, and could now compute in much the way that many of our smartest scholars ‘ponder’ the unknown? And what if modern Robotics could be coupled with such a learning computer to provide functionality far in excess of what either Siri, as a personal assistant, or even Robby the Robot, as a robotic assistant could provide? And what if such a learning computer enabled Robot could tap into knowledge via the Internet of things to absorb and interpret social media, video, images, text and an almost limitless number of data streams?
My wishful thinking of the Robby the Robot ‘of old’, rather than a man in a fancy (what a robot should look like) mechanized costume, would in today’s reality be an actual self-sustaining automaton capable of performing almost limitless feats. Not only will such a robot be able to answer any of your questions, and perform every task, but this futuristic Robby will not even need to wait for your question, or to be instructed to perform a needed function, because part of the robot’s learning is to ‘anticipate’ the likely as well as forecast the necessary.
The questions for us can be summed up as, “is such a robot just Sci-Fi” or reality? And if reality, just how close are we to such a reality?
Clearly, learning computers like IBM’s Watson, a supercomputer which may well be the ‘smarter cousin’ to Arthur C. Clark’s HAL 9000 computer of 2001, A Space Odyssey fame, are very much a reality, presently ‘learning everything’ literally in the known universe. Further, Watson is already interacting with a variety of robots.
IBM’s Watson has begun within the last couple of years driving the ‘thinking’ side of robots like one built by Softbank. This past spring, Hilton Hotels announced that they were exploring the use of a Watson powered robot they call ‘Connie’, named for Hilton’s founder Conrad Hilton, to provide hotel concierge services within some markets. Experimentation of integration of surgical robots with supercomputers like Watson have been explored, so perhaps even some of our most ‘highly recognized’ professions are in for a robotic makeover.
This week, Stephen Kelly, the CEO of Sage, revealed that the company had been working on a smart ‘accounting assistant’, named ‘Pegg’. Early Beta testing shows that Pegg actually performs the back office complexities of various accounting tasks so that entrepreneurs can manage their finances via conversations with Pegg, making the process of recording a business’s expenses as simple as obtaining a restaurant address, or a phone number, from your iPhone’s Siri. Who knows, it may not be long before Pegg grows up into a full blown accountant and becomes your ‘automated Chief Financial Officer’.
All I can say is, in the years since I first got to know him, it appears that Robby the Robot has spawned a robotic reality that far exceeds anything we use to call Sci-Fi.