Robots seem so far away. We’re so many years from Jetsons-esque machines that live among us and wash our dishes and fold our clothes. But the reality is the robots have arrived—you’re just not noticing them.
Take a robot called Tug, for instance. No, Tug can’t talk philosophy with you, and Tug can’t do your laundry. But Tug is a pioneer. Because in hospitals around the world, this robot is helping nurses and doctors care for patients by autonomously delivering food and drugs, shouldering the burden of time-consuming mundanity. And now, it’s rolling more and more into hotels, so get ready to see more of Tug.
If we’re being honest, Tug isn’t much to look at, unless you’re particularly fond of boxes on wheels. But really, it’s a self-driving car for the indoors. It navigates like a robocar would, using lasers to detect its surroundings and avoid obstacles. Step in front of it and it halts. Push an IV stand in its way and it routes around it.
Like a self-driving car, Tug sees its world by spraying it with lasers. That tech is called lidar, the same algorithmically intense stuff at the heart of the dispute between the self-driving car programs of Uber and Google’s Waymo. By bouncing lasers off its surroundings, Tug builds a highly detailed 3-D map. Supplementing that is a more traditional map of the hospital in Tug’s head. So it starts at a known point and uses geometry to position itself as it makes its way through the corridors. It can even call elevators to get to other floors.
Sure, sometimes it gets stuck and needs human help if, say, a large cart is blocking its path. But for the early days of this kind of technology, Tug is surprisingly sophisticated, navigating a human world with relative ease. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it puts humans at ease. Hospital administrators need all the help they can get, but can they trust a robot to work alongside doctors and nurses?
The good news is Tug cannot go rogue. In a Pittsburgh office park, technicians at Aethon, which makes Tug, keep a watchful eye over robots all around the world—helping unstick them, for instance, if a human isn’t around to help. That’s because Aethon didn’t have the luxury of waiting for culture to change to the point where people hurriedly adopt autonomous vehicles. “So we built this back into the system where we can make customers comfortable that [the Tugs] were being watched,” says Peter Seiff of Aethon, “even though they made the leap of faith with us that they could have autonomous vehicles running within their facility.”
This is the fascinating frontier of human-robot interaction. The robotic revolution is as much about getting the machines to adapt to us as it is about us adapting to the machines. So while Tug is designed to not run over toes, humans have to meet it halfway. That means treating these kinds of robots like your grandparents. Seriously. The idea is you help them when they get stuck or, heaven forbid, fall over. And generally speaking, you just get the hell out of their way.
That new kind of interaction can be a bit of a psychological trip. We humans have this way of anthropomorphizing sophisticated machines, granting agency where there is none. Tug has code, not consciousness, but it’s easy to feel affection for a machine that rolls around on its own and calls elevators and delivers drugs. It seems silly, I know, but when I first met Tug, it actually upset me—largely because its competence made my incompetence look all the more incompetent.
And get ready to interact with these machines on a regular basis. Tug is rolling through more and more hospitals, and is making its way into hotels to make room deliveries. That might seem like an easier environment to conquer, what with there being very few urgent emergencies in hotels to complicate Tug’s operations. But each new environment will come with its own challenges. Hotels are home to rather more drunk people, for instance, who may not necessarily give Tug the respect that it gets in hospitals.
It’s not just Tug that’s conquering the world. Autonomous machines are increasingly infiltrating our lives, be they companion robots or robots that help us do our jobs. Getting along with them means coming to terms with a new kind of relationship humans will form with what is essentially an invented species.
I, for one, welcome our new robotic grandparent overlords.