Humour: Will Robots Replace Humans? We-thinks not!

What happens when you train a machine to take over for humans? It screws up—just as people do

Andy Simmons Updated: Aug 19, 2021 17:25:52 IST
Humour: Will Robots Replace Humans? We-thinks not! illustrations by Richard Borge

Robots really are taking over the world. They’re writing ­novels—the first was 1 the Road, a cyborg’s homage to Jack Kerouac published in 2018. And they’re making lunch: The California restaurant chain CaliBurger is trying out a robot that can flip 2,000 burgers a day. What human can compete—especially given that androids don’t complain, ask for raises or get drunk at the office Christmas party? 

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the coining of the word 'robot' by the Czech playwright Karel Capek, we thought it would be fun to take a look at another side of robotkind, one that’s all too human. Here’s a by-no-means-complete list of failed attempts by automatons to replace us flesh-and-bone types.


Hold the Beothurtreed

Janelle Shane, an optics research scientist, wanted to find out whether artificial intelligence could create a menu that didn’t taste, well, artificial. So she fed a computer 30,000 cookbook recipes and then programmed it to create its own recipes. The result: Something called ‘Beothurtreed Tuna Pie’.

Want to make it? You’ll need these ingredients: 1 hard-cooked apple mayonnaise5 cup lumps, thinly sliced

Once you have your apple mayo and lumps, “surround with 1 ½ dozen heavy water by high, and drain & cut into ¼ in remaining the skillet.”

Another specialty was ‘Tart Cover Shrimp Butter Wol’, featuring “1 can fried pale fruit to cover that drain.” Are you out of fried pale fruit? You might have some rice, though you’ve probably never used “1 cup grated white rice,” as listed in another recipe. Clearly, Betty Crocker can sleep easy.


You Call That Service?

A few years back, the Henn na Hotel in Nagasaki, Japan, hired 243 robots to cover positions ranging from concierge to bellhop. Unfortunately, the check-in robots had trouble answering guests’ questions and photo­copying passports, while bellhop robots kept banging into walls and tripping over curbs. One in-room assistant sprang to attention every time a lodger snored, saying, “Sorry, I couldn’t catch that. Could you repeat your request?” Not long after the experiment began, the hotel ‘fired’ half of the malfunctioning robots. And they didn’t get their tips, either.


Stop the Presses!

In 2017, the Los Angeles Times published a story about a 6.8 earthquake that shook Santa Barbara, California. You would expect such a large quake to have gotten a lot of press coverage. And it did … in 1925, when the earthquake happened. Turns out the report was produced by a computer program called the Quakebot, which generates articles based on notices from the US Geological Survey. When a staffer at the USGS made an error while updating the historical data, the Quakebot jumped on it as if it were breaking news. Soon, Southern Californians were quaking in their boots over a non-earthquake.


You Look Familiar

Facial recognition software has one problem—it can’t always recognize faces. The American Civil Liberties Union proved that point when it used the Amazon Rekognition software to match mug shots of criminals to 28 members of Congress. But what about soccer ball recognition? During a match last year, the Scottish soccer team Inverness Caledonian Thistle FC unveiled AI-programmed video cameras designed to automatically follow the ball. Alas, the cameras constantly mistook the referee’s bald head for the soccer ball. One helpful viewer called the team to suggest supplying the ref with a toupee.


Quick, Grab a Broom!

What’s the worst a robotic vacuum cleaner can do, right? Let Jesse Newton fill you in. Poor Newton: His new puppy pooped on the floor sometime before 1:30 a.m., while he and his wife were asleep. How did Newton come up with that particular time? “Our Roomba runs at 1:30 a.m. every night,” he noted online a week later. “And it found the poop.” And so it began: “The Pooptastrophe. The Poohpocalypse. The Pooppening.” The robot vacuum spread the puppy’s load throughout the house, decorating floorboards, furniture legs and rugs, “resulting in a home that closely resembles a Jackson Pollock poop painting,” as Newton described it.


Whatever You Do, Don’t Anger Sophia

‘Sophia’ is a social humanoid robot developed by Hanson Robotics. She/it has an attractive face, with a square jaw, high cheekbones and impressive eyebrows. And she can hold a conversation to rival the mere chitchat of Apple’s Siri. This is surely the robot of the future. When CEO David Hanson and Sophia appeared on CNBC’s The Pulse, Hanson asked the robot the question humans have been asking themselves about robots for years: “Sophia, do you want to destroy humans?” Without hesitation, Sophia—smiling a tad too broadly for our taste—­responded, “OK, I will destroy humans.” Humans, you’ve been warned.

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