When you think of futuristic robots, you might imagine a post-apocalyptic scenario in which society desperately struggles for survival against a steel-and-silicon onslaught of murderous machines.
But the good news is, robots only do what humans program them to do, and there are many ways in which humans are programming robots to be super helpful to us. To take a deeper look, we investigated three key areas where robotics are actively helping humanity.
Carrie Hosey is certainly thankful for robots. Her story begins on what seemed like a normal day in Des Moines, Iowa, when she went for a motorcycle ride with her future husband, Dennis. But the unpredictable tragedy that awaited them would change both their lives forever.
“We came from under an overpass and there happened to be a straight-line wind gust of about 55 miles an hour,” Hosey told me. “It just hit me full-on and lifted me off the motorcycle and dumped me in the interstate. The driver that was behind me said that it looked like somebody took a soup spoon and scooped me off the motorcycle.”
The list of Carrie’s injuries is horrific: Compound fractures to the right ankle, left tibia, and left radius. Broken left tibial plateau. Shattered left thumb. Dislocated elbow and shoulder. Broken ribs. Internal bleeding. And, perhaps most significantly, a brachial plexus injury that paralyzed her left arm. She was hospitalized for a month, and bedridden for five more.
After Carrie’s life was saved, the next challenge was to try to restore any degree of function to her arm. Surgery and physical therapy weren’t helping, but her doctor thought she would be a good candidate for a MyoPro device, a robotic arm and hand brace that would translate the nerve signals from her skin into motorized movement.
“I remember one of the first things that I did that I was just so shocked about,” Hosey said. “I held a piece of celery and I put peanut butter on it. That seemed like the biggest thing that I had done in a really long time, because up until that point, that wasn’t something I could do. Being able to hold an onion while you chop it, or a cucumber. Being able to hold a salad dressing bottle and unscrew the cap. Just little things like that seemed like I had moved a mountain, y’know?”
Hosey even believes that the MyoPro device has helped her regain function when she isn’t using it. “I’m able to move my thumb, I’m able to move my pointer finger, I’m starting to get some movement in my middle finger... these are things that they said I would never have. I’m not a doctor or anything, this is all just speculation on my part, but I think that had I not had the MyoPro, I don’t know if I would have gotten all of the return [of function] back that I have.”
The MyoPro device is just one example of an extreme scenario in which robotics are working wonders for us. But you don’t have to suffer life-changing injuries to get a little help from your mechanical friends. Robots are showing up in more and more everyday places. Like your favorite lunch spot.
Spyce, the world’s first restaurant with a robotic kitchen, recently opened in Boston. After you order on a touch screen, your food — a Mediterranean-style bowl — is prepared by a robot. Humans are still involved, for now, to guide folks through the process as well as do some of the prep work that the robots aren’t capable of.
That highlights one area in which humans and robots have a vast disparity in ability: creativity. While a robot can follow instructions perfectly, they’re not at a point where we’re ready to let them choose exactly how umami-forward a dish should be, and whether or not cinnamon should be sprinkled on it. At least… not yet.
Until that day, robot food service “workers” are also at Brooklyn’s Bigeye Sushi, which automates part of the sushi-making process. While human chefs still slice the fish by hand, most of the subsequent work is done by a machine called the Suzumo SVR-NXA. And, of course, coffee is getting into the robotic mix as well. A company called Truebird has already tested its “automated micro-cafes” at locations around New York City, and is officially launching this October. This all raises one very important question: do you tip a robot?
Of course, you don’t have to go to a restaurant to get up close and personal with a ‘bot. The Roomba vacuum has been cleaning floors since 2002. Using a series of infrared beams to account for its surroundings, sensitive bumpers to react to unexpected obstacles, and even small portable sensors that give off a signal telling the machine to “stay away” from certain areas, these robotic vacuums need almost no human supervision. That may make you wonder: what’s next for robots in the home?
A company called Temi is working to answer that question. Their “personal robot” can follow you around your house and respond to your voice commands, which lets you do things like ask for recipes, connect with friends, and create to-do lists, all hands-free. To take a closer look at what the Temi robot can do (and might be able to do in the near future), check out the latest episode of our What’s Next In Tech video series, where we took a trip to the company’s headquarters.
Whether or not you feel like sampling coffee made by a robot barista or hanging out with a personal robot, one thing’s for certain: robotics are working to improve our lives every single day. If all this future-talk has got you eager to learn more, check out our What’s Next In Tech special section, where we’ve joined forces with Best Buy to peek into where we’re headed with all sorts of technology.
Quotations have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Tony Carnevale is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and creative producer.