Wednesday, July 13, 2011


A robot is defined, more or less, as a mechanical, intelligent agent that can perform functions on its own or with assistance. It is usually electro-mechanical and guided in "doing its thing" by a computer and/or programing. I'm sure we could quibble about this definition or about the borders between human and robot. As we all know, we can quibble about anything. 
     Robots can do almost anything these days.

Here's a familiar image of a robot.
We have a friend who runs a program at the local middle school in which students learn to build robots, and then they compete in competitions with these robots. This is a marvelously creative and intensely problem-solving-oriented activity, and these young people may very well be our future electro/engineering/mechanical problem solvers. The robots that these young people build are no so personified as some other robots that we are used to seeing.
My husband and I once saw a wonderful movie called Robot Stories. It was directed by a man named Greg Pak and consisted of four short stories about robots. In general, it explored the borders of human and robot, and how we are all somewhat robotic and how robots are all somewhat human. We enjoyed the film very much. Here is a photo from one of the stories, at the point when a young couple first meets and feeds their new, adopted robot baby.

See how happy they are. The baby is that egg-shaped pink thing in the lower corner, and the father is feeding it with that blue thing. I won't tell you what happens to these happy people. You'll have to find out for yourself.
      Here's why I'm thinking about robots today. I was on the way to the open mic the other night when I heard a story on the radio about robot beggars. The story is that in several places in the world, people have built robot beggars and placed them in shopping malls or on street corners (where real beggars are not allowed), and passersby have been receptive to the idea and given money to the robot, which is then supposedly given to charitable causes. Google "robot beggar" if you don't believe me (or maybe you already know about this, and I am the one behind the curve). There are several YouTube video of these robots in action.
     People are apparently more comfortable giving money to these mechanical beggars than to real ones. The robots are kind of cute, to start with.
Here's another one--more basic but still cuter than the homeless people you usually encounter on the streets.
I am extremely familiar with the discomfort of encountering people on the street who ask for money. Where I live, it happens all the time. I have written about this extensively in various forms in essays and in fiction. The experience, the discomfort. My husband is very generous with people who ask for money on the street, and this sometimes makes people who are with us (including me) uncomfortable.
     Just yesterday, in a parking lot, a man in a wheel chair (motorized, just to give the experience a little bit of robotic feel) came up to me to ask for money to get something to eat. I was just getting into my car with my groceries, and I was thinking about what my husband would do and the story I'd heard on the radio the night before about robotic beggars and the fact that when I got to the open mic, I'd looked in my wallet and found more money than I thought I had, so I gave him $5. I didn't really look him in the face though, and I left as quickly as I could.

5 comments: said...

Check the story in the NYT today about robots building cars in Lake Orion MI.

No vacation time. no insurance, no sick days, no jobs for humans. Nice work.

On the plus side, intelligent Republicans finally realize that the Tea Party folks are not really Republicans and separated themselves from the radical wing of the Party. Kind of like the candles burning eight days. Not expected,but definitely a hopeful sign.

Jim Poznak said...

I think I'll always prefer giving directly to homeless people because the interaction with them makes me feel good and grateful. I doubt I would give to a robot, even knowing it was functioning for homeless person because it seems too impersonal.

Susan Messer said...

Thanks, Rasirds. See, there's always something to be thank for for.

And to you, Mr. Poznak, . . that's my Jimmy.

Etta Worthington said...

I loved Robot Stories.

Susan Messer said...

Me too. The night we saw it at Facets, the director and some of the crew were there to take questions. Very cool.