When dealing with robots, there are two main questions.
1) When will they kill us?
2) Who are they trying to replace?
I'm not sure about the first one, but after spending time at the Wired NextFest today, the answer to number two is pretty clear: Women.
A group of us spent a lot of time early on in the robot section and the first thing we sought out were the Robot Ballroom Dance partners, blue and pink self-described "fem-bots" with itty little waists, oddly placed breasts, and inexplicable Mickey Mouse ears. They were designed to follow a waltz partner and sensors on the waist and arm tell them when to turn on the wheels hidden in their voluminous skirt thing. They were pretty disappointing overall. Make that very disappointing. The best part of the demonstration was the guy's silver denim tuxedo with built in cumberbund belt, which would have been pretty amazing on its own, but it just made the robots look lamer.
Across the way were smaller, but much cooler robots called Chroino who were designed to mimic a human gait. They move more naturally than other androids because of their flexible carbon-plastic exoskeleton and even center of gravity (at least according to the NextFest program I kept for reference). At any rate, these things were amazing, every joint was fluid, every movement looked somehow natural. We saw the slender white robot walk, and by walk I mean catwalk. This thing could strut its stuff, wiggling its little robot tush and shaking what its engineer gave it. We spoke to the designer and he said he based the movement on runway models. It's an interesting challenge and was very well executed, but in the context of some of the other robots shown, it could have some disturbing social consequences.
Look at this:
I don't understand this need to sexualize robots, particularly hypersexualizing the "female" ones. It's Minnie Mouse Syndrome - in order to distinguish genders you need to add extra things, like a bow and eyelashes to the female ones while leaving the male ones neutral or normal. Why do robots even need to be gendered?
Oh wait. I know why...
This is a graphic from the website of Kokoro, a realistic human "actroid" made by the same company who makes Hello Kitty. I really hope that "working girl" has different connotations in Japan.
Kokoro was at the festival and performed a traditional Japanese dance called "Girl with Wisteria." She was more like a Pirates of the Carribbean attraction than the interactive wonder-bot she was supposed to be (most of the robots exhibited were pretty buggy, maybe because most ran windows!), but still downright eerie. The promotional video listed her possible functions as stewardess, nurse, actress (well, at least an actress dressed as a French maid), nanny, and "the beautiful woman at the bar." Robot working girl indeed!
Anywhere we see realistic female androids, the inevitable sexbot question comes up. The videos of the actroid and her predecessors prompt user comments like "I'd hit that" or "who needs real women" or what they'll be able to do when the mouth can make more realistic shapes.
If this is the future, it's a huge step backwards into a place I know I don't want to go. I call for an intelligent feminist critique of robotic fetishism, perhaps accompanied by a metal bra burning. I'll get the soldering iron.