Ever since I was a small boy, life has been threatened by robots. They were going to take over, sooner or later.
In the beginning, I think, robots were merely a metaphor for industrialized man and were used as bugaboos by social thinkers.
When I was in high school, our drama class did "R.U.R.," Karel Capek's 1923 play about a future in which robots, enslaved to do man's work, revolt against their masters. It was great fun. Everyone dressed in robot costumes made of cardboard and walked about in the awkward gait of robots. Nobody took it seriously.
I realize now that "R.U.R." was more a protest against the enslavement of man by machines than a warning against an uprising of robots in the future.
But now, we're told, robots are here, and they're about to take over many of our human tasks.
According to a recent newspaper story, robots are not yet as sensitive and versatile as humans, but they are a "formidable presence in our world," and one of them can do the work of three to five people.
The author of the article comforts us with the assurance that robots can't see very well, have no taste buds and don't have much common sense.
But already they are doing many menial jobs for us and in time will free us even from mental labor, so we can devote ourselves to pleasure and culture.
Robots may not be able to think, but they can beat us at checkers and at backgammon and probably at Scrabble, though I'm not too sure about that. They would have to know a lot of words like zygote, yuck and uxoricide.
In another article, only a day or two later, we were told that we will soon be living in "smart" houses that can water our lawns, take and reroute our calls, cook our breakfast, turn on lights when we enter a room and turn them off when we leave it.
Is this to be our brave new world?
Sometimes I think we have already passed the point when we should have said, "Stop! Enough! " and arrested the invention of ever-more-human machines.
When do robots cease to make our lives more enjoyable?
I'm not absolutely sure I want to live in a completely automated house, with robots around to do all the homely little chores.
I'm sure my wife would like a robot to cook dinner, wash the dishes and vacuum the carpet. If we could count on a robot to cook dinner on time, we wouldn't have to make a mad dash to the Music Center, as we usually do.
It might seem like a good idea to have a robot that feeds the dogs; but a dog's devotion to its master comes from the master's role as the provider of food, and who wants a dog that loves its robot more than its master?
Now washing the dog is something else. I wouldn't mind having a robot that can wash the dog, take the trash out and clean the bathtub.
I wouldn't mind a robot that goes out to pick up the paper, especially on cold and rainy mornings, but in the future we may no longer have newspapers. Our news will simply emanate from the walls, perhaps chosen for us by some judicious government censor.
I'm not sure, though, that I'd care to have a robot idling about the house when it isn't busy. According to the story, roboticists predict that within 20 years some robots will have emotions and self-awareness. I couldn't stand a robot in the house who was pouting because we didn't pay it enough attention or was hurt because of some imaginary reproach.
An idle robot would get on my nerves and on my conscience. I'd keep thinking, "I wonder if it'd like to play a game of checkers." But who wants to play checkers with somebody that wins every time?
I wouldn't care to have a robot that can change light bulbs. Changing light bulbs is about the only household chore I do anymore. Light bulbs blow out just frequently enough to make me feel irreplaceable, without taxing me too much. I suppose my wife could change a light bulb if she had to, but I've simply never let her do it. It isn't in her charter of liberation.
With robots growing so sophisticated that they can almost think, I'm afraid that having one around the house would make me self- conscious--as if a brother-in-law were living with us. I'd never feel quite free to say what I'd want to say or do what I'd want to do.
But I'm not worried yet. As long as they have no taste buds we're safe.
A robot that can't tell a Napa Valley Chardonnay from a Diet Pepsi is no threat to civilization.