Don’t know about you, but when someone says robot we think of that terrifying computer from A Space Odyssey, or The Terminator – in other words, some kind of human-looking mega machine, ripping a car in half with its metal arms and shooting lasers from terrifying red eyes.
It’s hard to imagine that guy sitting behind a desk any time soon, but at the same time, we keep being told robots are coming to take our jobs. The whole idea is so normal now that Bill Gates is already coming up with proposals for how best to tax our new robot colleagues.
So how close are the robots to taking over? Well, although there’s not much evidence that technology replaces humans – in fact, evidence shows that automation generally leads to new jobs being created – we do already come into contact with quite a few robots everyday, and everywhere.
In the lounge
Vacuuming is kind of just a fact of life – we’ve all got to do it at some point. Or do we? In 2002, Roomba brought out a self-driving vacuum cleaner, which skoots happily around a room hoovering as it goes. The design has recently been given a futuristic upgrade: the Dyson 360 Eye uses a mounted camera to learn the layout of your house for even more efficient cleaning.
In the kitchen
Imagine if you could get a fully-fledged robot chef in there whipping up dinner for you? Not long, according to some innovators. Moley Robotics has designed a prototype robot chef that can cook up to 2,000 dishes – and clean up after itself. Sound a bit far-fetched? Similar technology is already being used in sushi restaurants in Japan. And, there are loads of examples of automation making our lives easier in the kitchen already – from cake mixers to the washing machine. Plus, the rise of smart tech (or the internet of things) means you can do things that you never realised you needed to do before, like checking the contents of your fridge while you’re at the supermarket, for example.
In the car
The vision of a self-driving car in every household might be a little way off, but the vehicles currently rolling off factory lines are chock full of the robotic technology set to make autonomous cars a thing of the future. Cruise control, parking sensors, collision mitigation systems, dynamic headlights and GPS-controlled gear changing are all examples of the robotic vehicle technology that’s becoming the motoring norm.
On the go
The humble vending machine has been dispensing our snacks since the 1880s and is one of the oldest examples of everyday robotics. We’re used to relying on them for a packet of crisps or a can of soda, but in the future vending machines will be able to dispense all kinds of hot and cold food and drinks – and not just questionable coffee, either. Machines in the USA are already assembling custom-order pizzas on demand, while the newly designed ‘Juicebot’ will whip up a fresh and natural smoothie of your choice in seconds, which will make waiting in line at a juicebar a thing of the past.
At the supermarket
Popping out for a pint of milk became a lot less social back in 2008 when the first self-service checkouts arrived in UK stores. The UK now has more DIY tills than any other European country (around 42,000) and while it took some time for us to get used to doing the weekly shop unaided, it’s hard to imagine a supermarket without them now. Of course, there’s always the frustration of the overly-cheery lady telling you you’ve got an “unexpected item in the bagging area”, which is why stores of the future might not have checkouts at all. Amazon recently road-tested a ‘grab and go’ concept shop that allows shoppers to simply walk out with their purchases, with the correct amount taken straight out of their bank accounts thanks to the same technology used in self-driving cars.
With your finances
Getting money out of a cashpoint is now so commonplace that it’s easy to forget that, like self-service supermarket tills, they’ve also replaced human workers. Cash machines first arrived in the UK in 1967 and have evolved over the years to cover all aspects of everyday banking, from withdrawing cash to depositing cheques, and in some cases even paying bills. Now, developments in artificial intelligence mean robots can even act as financial advisors. Apps that track your spending, for example, can show you where you need to cut back and even use clever algorithms to manage your savings for you.
Just like the rest of us, robots come in all shapes and sizes. And, as humans we’re pretty intent on making machines cleverer and cleverer so they can do lots of our work for us and we can lay back with a margarita (and if we're an employer, hire less workers).The fear that robots will make humans redundant isn't backed up by research – in the long run, we're likely to be just fine. But in the midterm, Bill Gates's basic point is that they should be making up for the temporary loss in job by paying their way just like the rest of us.