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Steve, o Steve

Article from Issue 202/2017
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A recent article in several popular news sources recounts the story of a security robot at The Washington Harbour commercial district, affectionately called Steve, that drove itself into a water fountain. The water feature is at the bottom of a few short steps that start at floor level – without a planter or bench to serve as a casual barricade. The poor little robot was just rolling along, watching things, and the floor dropped out from under it. 

Dear Reader,

A recent article in several popular news sources recounts the story of a security robot at The Washington Harbour commercial district, affectionately called Steve, that drove itself into a water fountain. The water feature is at the bottom of a few short steps that start at floor level – without a planter or bench to serve as a casual barricade. The poor little robot was just rolling along, watching things, and the floor dropped out from under it. I wonder if any sight-impaired people have fallen at this spot, although a well-handled cane would presumably give some indication of a change in the vertical dimension. I also wonder if a clear-sighted but absent-minded pedestrian with a tendency to look in all directions and not necessarily straight ahead (like the author of this column) could have eventually fallen prey to the same water trap.

The picture accompanying the article shows the robot, which has a tin-can-like R2D2 morphology, "face" down in the water, attended by a maintenance official, with a few shoppers gathered around snapping pictures. I felt a certain kinship with the robot, knowing that it could have been me.

You are probably wondering why I'm mentioning this, and I'm probably wondering too, except to say that it seems to illustrate how we tend to oversell our technologies. Is this device really a robot in the way we experience them in science fiction, or is it more like a self-driving vehicle that shoots surveillance videos? If you call it a robot, you get to charge more for it, but people have higher expectations. Interestingly enough, high expectations are always welcome in the sales department, so we call it a robot, which means we assign it human characteristics and laugh when it falls face-first into a puddle.

I'm sure someday we'll figure out how to make robots that don't slip on banana peels and fall into water fountains. We're usually about 10 years behind where we say we already are. That's good for high tech news, because we have a steady stream of articles on Boeing Dreamliners catching fire and self-driving cars crashing into bridge abutments.

The real problem is, when we base our decisions on self-fulfilling prophecies, we decide in desperation to invest in something because we're falling behind, when actually, the train hasn't quite left the station yet. Eventually, those decisions start to create the world we thought we were already in, and we wonder how we survived all those primitive afternoons at The Washington Harbor without the blessing of a robot driving around recording videos of the shoppers.

Steve, O Steve, how will we make it without thee?

Joe Casad, Editor in Chief

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