April 26, 2018

Rosie the Amazon robot maid might be coming to your house in a pneumatic tube soon


Curtis White opens his treatise on debunking technological determinism, We, Robots, with a quote from Isaac Asimov:

There was a time when humanity faced the universe alone and without a friend. Now he has creatures to help him; stronger creatures than himself, more faithful, more useful, and absolutely devoted to him. Mankind is no longer alone.

No one wants to be alone, especially early in the morning when you desperately need that first cup of coffee but can’t quite summon the spirit to put a tiny plastic canister into the Keurig machine, press a button, and painstakingly raise the chalice of caffeinated contentment to your not-yet-conscious lips.

Said another way, life’s hard, shit sucks, and endless comfort is a myth made up by unconvincing stepparents.

The only solution to our domestic misfortunes—or so the technologists tell us—is robotic. On The Jetsons, a benchmark in the early history of televised home robots, a servant named Rosie, with metallic skin and French maid accoutrements, catered to the titular family’s every need. She prepared meals, cleaned, supervised children, even kept secrets:

Judy Jetson: Promise you won’t tell?
Rosie: I swear on my mother’s rechargable batteries.

According to Mark Gurman and Brad Stone at Bloomberg, Amazon is after this future market. Amazon already owns a subsidiary, the aptly named Amazon Robotics, that designs and manufactures the automated taskbots that scurry along the floors of their warehouses. But a project currently in development, a domestic, stay-at-home robot codenamed Vesta, is something else entirely. “People familiar with the project speculate that the Vesta robot could be a sort of mobile Alexa, accompanying customers in parts of their home where they don’t have Echo devices,” Gurman and Stone write. “Prototypes of the robots have advanced cameras and computer vision software and can navigate through homes like a self-driving car.”

Amazon is currently not responding to press inquiries about the project, but it’s not hard to guess why they’d want a robot following you around the house. “I see you’re low on laundry detergent. Would you like me to order more?” All of your consumption would be monitored and cataloged in an effort to sell more stuff.

It’s a future that Curtis White, and the preachers of techno-skepticism, warn us about continually. Turning more and more of our lives over to machines suggests a world that may look less like a utopia than the bleak civilization in Arthur C. Clarke’s City and the Stars, where all inhabitants of the city of Diaspar live under the control of a central computer, which robs their infinite lives of all meaning.

That is. of course, fiction, and a long way off, but it offers some worthwhile caution about a scenario where robotic assistants are mining our behaviors for future consumerism.



Peter Clark is a former Melville House sales manager.