Do you speak robot?

Our future – a lot of movies and written pieces say – will be filled with robots. Sometimes they are portrayed as caring, helpful and generous, sometimes they are vicious things that aim to destroy humanity for the plague we are. In whatever color we paint them, they are always sentient or near sentient and have moral values imbued in their programming. And, remarkably, they are almost always portrayed in the future.

Now let me put my Morpheus glasses on and say: what if I told you the robots are already here and have been for quite a while? We have been dealing with them, benefiting from them and screaming at them for a long time now. It’s just that they never claimed to be robots themselves! Why is that?

Back in the day our robots used to be dumb. Take our VCRs, for example. Our what? They knew how to play videos. More specifically, they knew how to play videos magnetically encoded in tapes. But nothing else. They didn’t know where to get the tapes. The early models didn’t know how to rewind the tapes. You could program it to display the time, but that required dark sorcery or a tech savvy family member. And had to be redone after every power loss. DVD players were better: rewinding became obsolete. However, the damn clock remained a puzzle for a lot of people, except for that smart nephew. “He just knows these things!”, his aunt would say.

Speaking of clocks, remember alarm clocks? You could set it to make you hate it once per day, but you hated it even more when you forgot to turn it off on weekends. Some of them were as puzzling as the VCR and the DVD clocks, but that pesky little nephew could push the right buttons in no time and get it right every time. Microwaves were different beasts, although not untamable by the mighty nephew. All of these robots performed different tasks and were created by different people, but the puny brat could set their clocks with the same ease, without ever flinching. Their interfaces were wildly different, and yet all of these devices spoke the same language: the language of robots.

Can you brick it remotely?

At first their was a crude language, you had to press the right buttons in the correct order and with perfect timing. We had power over them, for our language was far superior. Once one knew how to set up one or two of them, she could configure any other robot. However, time relentlessly passed, as it always does, and things changed. Robots got bigger and bigger brains. Now they can have thousands of buttons attached to them and can perform practically any task. The truth, however, is that they are still fundamentally and irremediably dumb.

They are so dumb that they are embarrassed by it. They try to call themselves ‘smart’. You had phones, now you have smartphones. You had watches, these days they are smart watches. You had cars, guess what? Their language became sophisticated. They understand clicks, swipes and hand gestures. They understand body gestures. They understand speech. Heck, they even talk back!

Present day robots know where to get the tape. They play the tape automatically to you. They rewind the tape and put it back where it belongs. They suggest new tapes for you to watch. They show you what other people thought of the tape you just watched. They show the names of everyone that appeared in that tape. Your alarm clock? It wakes you up every workday. It knows to be quiet on weekends. You still scream at it in the morning, but you caress it to make it stop ringing. You carry it with you everywhere you go. This freaking clock knows when you cross timezones and changes accordingly! It shows you the local weather, and it is always local, because it knows where you are.

The scary thought is that those dumb robots know all of these things because someone taught their sorry metal asses and big brains. Those people made robots look smart. We still have power over the robots, but it is waning. You can turn off its GPS, but you have to know how to talk to it. Because their language is more complicated now, fewer and fewer people know how to speak robot, and that became accepted: it is too difficult to configure the VCR clock, so why bother? That’s why there are things that can’t be turned off anymore!

Sit with your robot. Know what it can do, what it can’t do and, more importantly, what you can make it do or not do. Of all the languages in the world, learn robot. Learn it not only because everyone else is learning, but also because otherwise your robots will not be yours anymore.