What looks like a cake tin on wheels is working its way around the room. The robot vacuum cleaner is just as noisy as a normal one, but there’s an important difference: You don’t have to lift a finger to clean your floor. The dirt collects inside the robot’s body, swept up industriously by the rotating brushes and sucked in by the motor. The machine’s sensor flickers over the spot where some bread crumbs just fell, telling it that this is an especially dirty place, which requires an extra sweep for good measure. At the edge of the stairs, the cake tin detects the drop and changes course in the nick of time. Having surveyed the room three times, the robot concludes that its job is done. Everything is clean. No more arguing over who has to vacuum the floor. Let the machine do the work while you sit in a comfortable chair, maybe with another robot for a pet. You can already buy devices like this for a couple of hundred dollars. In fact, much of the Industrial Revolution is about machines working for us. That has dramatically changed productivity and labor. In our households, too, we have a number of machines that do the work for us. Examples are our washing machines and dryers. But for as long as machines have existed, we have dreamed of robots that could take over more tedious chores—metal people who would obey our every order and do our work for us—open the door, boil the potatoes, fix the car. It’s no coincidence that robot derives from the word for “work” in most of the Slavic languages. Robots spark fantasies of large factories full of metal workers lifting boxes, toiling on the production line, and designing new products at their drawing boards. These are some serious toys. They extend our human capacities in much the same way as all the other tools we have developed in the course of our history. Some are already in use in our daily lives, including ones that make independent and crucial decisions without seeking our input.
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