2017: bad in general; pretty good for robots. That’s my summary anyway, and while I understand if you feel like I’m glossing over one or two important events, I would ask you to remember what those important events actually were. Not great, right? Best to concentrate on those bots, a least for a little while.
Without further ado, here’s The Verge’s inaugural Robots of The Year awards.
Most promising newcomer: this robot that blinds people for literally no reason
Shitty robots will forever have a special place in my heart because they remind me of myself, a shitty human. YouTuber Simone Giertz has had this genre sewed up since 2016, but my personal favorite shit-bot this year was a grubby specimen that lives in a pizza box and uses facial recognition to shoot lasers into the eyes of anyone it sees. Inspirational.
Greatest heel turn: the suicidal security bot that found work scaring homeless people
God bless the Knightscope K5, for it is truly a trailblazer in human-robot relations. It may look like a Dalek redesigned by Jony Ive, but in its duties as a security guard on-the-cheap it has ended up in all sorts of weird scrapes: knocking over kids, getting beaten up by drunks, and, yes, committing suicide in a public fountain.
It’s fair to say that back in July when the K5 went for its impromptu baptism the internet loved this robot. Why? Because it was Extremely Relatable and Incredibly 2017. But later this year, when it popped up again in the news after being deployed as a deterrent against homeless people in San Francisco, the internet hated it. Why? Because it had stopped being relatable, and was just Extremely 2017.
The Juicero hubris-in-automation memorial award: Sally the $30,000 salad tosser
Two things: first, the woman in this video looks way too happy to be ordering salad, and second, this machine is an absolute rip-off. It costs $30,000 and doesn’t even make salad! You have to fill it up yourself with pre-sliced ingredients, and then it dumps them in a bowl, gives it a mix, and leaves you wondering why some very clever people spent millions half-automating such a straightforward task. Ah well, at least it doesn’t use pods.
Most likely to make Verge commenters say “wow, Black Mirror much?”: Harvard’s robot bee
I stopped watching Black Mirror after I read that post on The Toast that summarized it as “What if phones but too much?” (I could never take it seriously again.) But I had to start watching once more because whenever we wrote about Harvard’s long-running robot bee project there’d be a dozen people in the comments saying that it was all very Black Mirror. I quite enjoyed the episode in question, which I believe was called “What if social media but too much?”
Henchest: the Guardian GT
The Guardian GT looks like it just rolled off the set of a Hollywood blockbuster and is about to be tossed a towel to wipe down its Huge Arms. It was built to help with heavy lifting on construction sites, and is capable of bench-pressing 1,000 lbs. But although it’s certainly physically imposing, the clever thing about the Guardian GT is its control system. An operator wears little miniature arms that let them work the GT like a puppet, and, because the robot’s arms are perfectly scaled up from a human’s, movement feels natural and seamless.
The robot in the video above (wait for the reveal at the end) does actually exist, though whether or not it’s improved any father-daughter relationships is up for debate. Anyway, it wins this year’s prize for most versatile, because ping pong and nurturing emotional connections are two things I’ve never been good at.
Scariest vision of the future: Jeff Bezos in a 13-foot mech
I started the year the same as you, making jokes about how 2017 would be the “beginning of the end,” leaving humanity “cowering in the ruins” as tech billionaires battled for supremacy over our new “fire-scorched hell-world.” Well, 12 months later and I’m still making the same jokes but now the billionaires have mechs and it doesn’t seem as funny. Tax the rich before they kill us, that’s all I’ll say about that.
*We should point out that while this robot looks impressive, it’s more for show than anything else.
Biggest con: Sophia the robot
Sophia the robot has been around for years, but made more than the usual number of headlines in 2017. This humanoid bot gave a speech to the UN, became a “citizen” of Saudi Arabia, and triggered headlines like “Sophia wants a baby” after gabbling some vague, pre-programmed remarks about the importance of families. Would these stories get written about a mannequin with a sign saying “I want children” hung round its neck? No, and yet both display about as much conscious thought as Sophia.
As we spelled out in a pair of pieces, this is a robot that’s more about artifice than artificial intelligence. Some clever engineering has gone into connecting the bot’s mechanical movements with systems for speech synthesis and so on, but ultimately Sophia is no cleverer than Siri. It just looks a hell of a lot like an advanced robot, and so we talk about it as if it is. Sensationalist journalism and marketing from the bot’s creators, Hanson Robotics, share the blame for this misconception, but let’s hope Sophia can educate people about how unsophisticated (relative to a human) so much of artificial intelligence really is.
Most likely to save your life: this butt-crawling colonoscopy bot
People die from undiagnosed bowel cancer because they’re unwilling to suffer the discomfort of a colonoscopy and that’s a tragic waste. It’s also why researchers are working on better colonoscopy bots that will make the process of looking in your butt quicker and less painful. This particular wriggling robot needs to be slimmed down before it can be put to work, but it’s a perfect example of how weird-looking robots might save your life one day.
Most likely to save your life if you’re dying from stress: this headless cat pillow
I think as long as you explained to people exactly what this therapy robot actually is before you hand it to them, then it’s probably a pretty good stress reliever. But! If you tell someone “hey, pet this cat” and then throw them this unidentified furry blob plus tail, they will think you’ve dismembered a real cat and handed them the stuffed remains and they will be mad at you. Fail to prepare and prepare to fail, people.
Best backflip: Boston Dynamics’ Atlas
And to round off this year’s list, if you admire one robot in 2017 make it Boston Dynamics’ Atlas. It’s not new, but it has newly learned to do backflips, and if I could do a backflip I would not only expect constant attention and praise, but also an award. But I can’t. So I’m giving one to Atlas instead. Way to go kiddo.