Robots: The Ups and Downs of An Unstoppable Force

Robots are not a new idea. They’ve existed for many years, mainly as industrial machinery. But now the idea of personal robots is expanding. A personal robot is a robot designed to be useful for humans. The proposition of having robots in our homes is intriguing but we’re not quite there yet. Currently they are very costly, although with the help of Moore’s Law perhaps we will see their price reduce and demand rise in the following years. I’m curious to see if our generation will experience the incorporation of personal robots into our daily lives. Let us hope that the movie I, Robot doesn’t become an accurate predictor of our future.

I’d like to think a futuristic Dr. Seuss poem could sound a little like this one:

There is a robot for vacuuming and one for cleaning,
One for scheduling and some for picture taking,
One can tell stories and the other can cook chicken cacciatore,
There are robots to play the kazoo,
Some can be part of your family too,
There are one hundred for me,
And one hundred for you too.
and eventually recovery from the recession.

To me it’s a disturbing idea that a personal robot, a program, could become one of our close friends. But Cynthia Breazeal, grad student at MIT, has a different opinion. In Cynthia Breazeal’s Ted Talk, “The Rise of Personal Robots”, she explains that robots can act as social technology; they push our social buttons so to speak.
Cynthia performed a study in which a human would interact with her personal robot, Nexi. The personal robot was designed to use the same body language and the same verbal cues as the human that it was interacting with. She found that people responded to her robot the same way they responded to a human.
She has also developed MeBot, a robotic platform for socially embodied telepresence. This MeBot can capture things such as hand gestures and posture and display them to your conversation partner through the phone.
She’s working on another project named Playtime Computing where they’re taking what’s so engaging from on screen and bringing it into the real world. It’s a really cool idea, kids enjoy it. But I argue that letting them play outside would be more beneficial!
I believe social robots can be beneficial to us, but only to a certain extent. We could just become hermits and only have our robot friends if we so chose. I think that we can use these robots to our advantage, but we must also realize that if we become dependent on it we will lose our real friends.

Until I began to search for them, I did not realize the vast amounts of personal robots that have already been created. Here are a few that I’ve discovered so far.
Toshiba’s ApriPoko is a robot designed to act as a universal remote and understand the user. It processes information from our actions and commits it to memory. So for example, if it observes you turning on the TV it will ask what you just did, you tell it you just turned on the TV and so ApriPoko commits it to memory and next time you just have to tell the robot and it will turn the TV on for you.
Luna by Robodynamics is a general-purpose robot that can be taught new things. Luna is completely programmable and with the correct software could carry drinks for you, check your e-mails and much more.
Childcare PaPeRo by NEC Corporation is designed to be able to live with a family and act as their companion. It has features such as facial recognition and speech recognition which will allow it to interact intelligently with its users. Although personally I don’t believe I could trust PaPeRo with my own future child.
Jibo by the MIT Media Lab is a social robot, and apparently a new addition to the family. It can act as your family’s cameraman, tell stories to your children and remind you of your schedule.
Paro the robot seal has been around since 2004. It’s used to help treat dementia patients by making them feel comforted and important. Paro’s ability to give a real response to a patient encourages social interactions, not to mention he’s pretty cute too. An important thing that Paro gives his patient is the sense of responsibility as the patient being cared for wouldn’t feel responsible all too often. Paro is definitely a good example of an application in which robots should be used.
Nexi by MIT Personal Robots Group is an emotional robot. It is used to study completely regulated human interactions as humans respond to Nexi much like they would a human.
Robovie R3 by Advanced Telecommunications Institute with Vstone. Robovie R3 has been created to assist the elderly and disabled in everyday tasks such as navigation and shopping.
The main problem with getting these robots into our homes is the price. Once designs improve and interest for these units begins to rise we will witness a wave of moderately priced robots available for consumer purchase. Some wait anxiously for them, others eagerly and quite a few ignorant of the idea altogether.

A big question I have is where do we draw the line with robotics? If we have social robots to befriend us, household robots to do our chores, fetch our groceries, and telepresence robots to allow us to be somewhere without physically going there, would there even be a need to go outside?
As humans we are always looking to improve productivity, especially if that could lead to eluding household chores. I believe household robots are a great idea and almost certainly will become integrated within our homes much like laptops and other gadgets have. These household robots may not be as capable as Rosie from The Jetsons but will certainly come close.
I hypothesize that we’ll sink too deeply into our robotic dependence when we start using them to impersonate ourselves. What I’m referring to is the idea of Telepresence Robots. A great example would be the robot created by Double Robotics which allows you to be anywhere in the world from your home, as long as your “Double” is there. It works by having an iPad or some sort of tablet that displays a live video stream of yourself mounted to a mobile robot. You simply connect from your iPad at home via an app and presto, you’re making a physical presence without even being there.
The idea behind this is completely practical but I fear that people may get too comfortable with using their “Double” as opposed to themselves physically being somewhere. It may lead to an age of anti-social hermits; important office meetings conducted entirely over video streams, kids choosing to employ their Double instead of physically going to class. I could see this technology being abused to an extreme level.
The need for face to face interaction is very important and I believe as people get more comfortable using telepresence robots we lose the ability to talk with people face to face. Social media and cellphones have already made a huge dent in that ability, I think these telepresence robots would do so even more.


If you have experienced any of the following signs or symptoms you may have SHAS:

1) Constant fear of stepping outdoors and feeling the need to explain the reasons why to Buddy, your robotic best friend.
2) Instead of telling your wife/husband and or children (who are in the same house) you love them in person you get Buddy to relay the message for you.
3) Your friends ask you to come out for dinner; you fake a headache and send your telepresence robot in your stead.
4) Your children would like you to read a bedtime story and immediately you send Buddy to tell them the story, he’s much better at it anyways.
5) Opting out of going to family events… You’re real family is the several robots you polish and care for unconditionally every night.

These are a few symptoms of SHAS, please refer to the following treatment suggestions if you indeed would like to get back to who you were.
2) Now that you’ve shut them down, take a second to enjoy the sweet silence around you, perhaps you’ll hear birds chirping outdoors instead of the constant rumbling robotic motors.
3) Go tell all of your family and friends that you love and cherish them, quickly now.
4) Enjoy a walk outside by yourself, with friends and or family.
5) Book a few dinner dates with your friends, be sure to attend them in person.
Disconnecting from technology may be one of the most relieving, enlightening experiences you’ve had in quite a while. Take a seat before you fall over. We must always remember that although they may seem like they can, robots do not feel as humans do. Remaining distant from family and friends can potentially cause an unrecoverable gap between you and them. Always, always keep family and friends first. Robot friends can come in later.

As Cynthia Breazeal quotes,
“Robots touch something deeply human within us”
I begin to wonder if this is a double edged sword. They may touch something deeply human within us, but as we entwine our lives more and more with robots will we lose something more human? I believe that face to face human interaction is deeply embedded within our culture. Just being able to observe hand gestures and give simple things like hugs cannot be mimicked by robots. We already see a loss of physical interaction occurring due to things like: social media, texting, self-checkout lines in grocery stores, and the list rambles on. Could robots turn us into an entirely anti-social society? I think it is entirely plausible and we must tread with caution in order to ensure this doesn’t happen.

Solitude, the Cure for Technology Addiction

Picture the following; you are hiking through a luscious green forest with birds chirping all around you, everything is blooming with life. A hundred meters ahead you spot a white-tailed doe peacefully grazing in an open field. You stare in awe at the beauty of this deer and the nature surrounding it. *BING* suddenly your lifeless, metallic phone beeps with the promise of a new Facebook interaction. The doe darts away and you’re left alone with a new friend request. Gazing upon a graceful deer or accepting a new friend on Facebook, whom you probably don’t even now. I would choose the deer every time but it seems that choice, once a common choice, is now uncommon.

Peace, tranquility, self-control, wholeness and quietness. All words used to describe how one could feel apart from technology. Anxiety, unease, panic and agitation are more likely to be symptoms that people feel when unplugged.  To experience the hush sounds of nature without being disturbed by a witty Twitter post or an e-mail is essentially lost upon this generation. Jobs, social encounters, and family are typically dependent upon technology and so the ability to take oneself away from it, even for a little while, becomes ever more difficult. I will venture into why and how we get addicted as well as describe some ways that you can unplug and give yourself a break.

social media 2


I am part of what I like to refer to as the “social media generation” (SMG for short) and I certainly am not proud of it. You can recognize a person of the SMG by these three tell-tale signs:

  • The person in question is constantly bumping into things as they choose to look not ahead, but instead straight down at their phones. If you bump into one an apology is not to be expected as they are fully engaged in a conversation with someone kilometers away.
  • Said person’s web browser contains at least one tab open with a social media website such as Facebook, Twitter, etc. They usually will be mindlessly scrolling the webpage, oblivious of their surroundings. Approach with care as you don’t want to startle this person.
  • This person has the ability to appear alone even though he is actually amongst a bunch of friends. They are all texting instead of conversing among themselves.

The SMG finds comfort within its own individual networks; a friend is just a click away. But I am awfully concerned about how this technological dependence will affect us in the long run. My concern has led me to do some research. It is my goal to have you understand the SMG a little better, and hopefully gain some useful knowledge about social media addiction and how to combat it.


You feel a vibration in your pocket, a phone appears in your hand and someone has liked a photo of yours on Facebook. You feel this little shot of happiness and satisfaction from each and every one of these likes. As you post more and more photos, and receive more and more likes, it becomes a habit. You’re constantly taking selfies and uploading to Facebook, hoping for likes that will provide some extra confidence that you need. It’s easy to see how this gets addicting. We must be careful not to label this as an actual addiction as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has decided not to include internet addiction in its new edition.

However, this little shot of happiness that we receive from a like on Facebook or a Twitter retweet is actually a physiological response according to a study performed by Harvard. The study proposes “self-disclosure” (eg. posting a picture on Facebook) is akin to that of the reward we get from eating chocolate or having sex. The release of dopamine! Who ever thought that self-disclosing something could have similar effects as doing cocaine? It seems the battle to unplug has transferred to a physiological level.

Take this internet addict quiz and see if you too are hooked! I know it’s a little bit goofy, but I would bet $10 (student problems…) that your quiz results indicate that you are some sort of internet addict. I know what you’re thinking “this quiz is preposterous, 10 questions and it thinks it can label me an addict”. Well then I give you a challenge. Find a day in your week that you know there’s nothing to do, now take these 24 hours and try to survive without touching: your iPhone, laptop, mp3 player, and anything that allows you to interact with social media! If you can last the entire 24 hours without experiencing edginess and anxiety, the small unconscious reach to the phone in your pocket, then I declare you are not an internet addict. If you didn’t survive and had to open your phone to check the latest tweets, or found yourself completely isolated from mankind like Gollum in his cave from Lord of the Rings, then most likely, you are an internet/social media addict. I think it’s time you assessed just how far spread your addiction is and to decide whether or not you want to diminish it.


Two hundred university students were given a challenge: stay off social media for 24 hours, no texting, using laptops etc. The study was called “24 Hours: Unplugged”, here are some highlights:

  • It was easy to confuse these students with crack addicts who just straight up quit after reading their blogs. They described themselves as miserable, extremely antsy, anxious, craving and jittery.
  • Researchers found that American college students struggle to function without their social media connection to the world.
  • They even found it boring just to walk around campus without music playing in their ears.
  • They felt cut off from other human beings, that they were essentially living in isolation although there were thousands of students around them.
  • They hated that they didn’t have the latest news updates.

Other recent studies referenced by Jessica Samakow and Lori Leibovich in their article “Here’s What a Constantly Plugged-In Life is Doing to Kids’ Bodies” reveal some other effects of being plugged in:

  • Kids tend to develop terrible posture
  • They are less active, childhood obesity is now linked to too much screen time
  • Damages sight, destroys attention spans and disrupts sleep


The amount of web content with the subject unplugging is staggering. It seems everyone wants to unplug, but they just can’t, why? As I peruse through the multitudes of articles on the subject of ‘unplugging’ a common them arises from the masses. TURN OFF YOUR PHONE! Yes it most likely is that simple, try not playing up to the typical stereotype of a SMG child for five minutes.

To listen to the sounds of the forest without the incessant beeping of my phone is something I enjoy completely and take the time to do. I also enjoy hitting the gym, and when I do my phone stays at home; it’s my way of unplugging, gym time is me time. Whatever method you can find that works I suggest you grab hold of it, the benefits of unplugging are amazing.

A beautiful example of unplugging is demonstrated by Baratunde Thurston; he deems it The Great Disconnect. His story is a beautiful one. As he documents his journey there arises a beautiful appreciation for the little things. Enjoying conversations at dinner with only himself, his guest and the waiter knowing what he ordered, instead of posting it on Facebook to his 100,000 or so followers. As he became more disconnected he found he was less stressed about not knowing things and found comfort in the fact that he was “still there” without the internet; that he still existed upon this Earth. He noted that he experienced an expansion of sensations and ideas; a writing project that had him stumped for months suddenly become the easiest thing in the world. After 25 days he returned to the plugged in world, albeit less plugged than before. He developed new habits that helped him stay less addicted. He acknowledges that he has immersed himself almost completely back into technology but not without an enhanced awareness of the price we pay for it; lack of depth, lower quality, impatience, selfishness and mental exhaustion. He quotes

“The greatest gift I gave myself was a restored appreciation for disengagement, silence, and emptiness… Unoccupied moments are beautiful and I have taken to scheduling them”

I think we can all learn from Bratunde Thurston’s journey. Although most may not have the luxury of taking 25 days off, perhaps even a day can teach you the value of unplugging. Perhaps follow Priya Parker and take a “#Iamhereday” once and a while. Take a group of friends, pick a neighbourhood or theme in a city and explore it with your phone off. Open your eyes and experience all that is physically around you, take in the real life conversations you have with your friends.                                                                                                                                                                                                       As I delved deeper into resources on social media I stumbled upon Sherry Turkle’s Ted Talk titled “Connected, but alone?” In her earlier days Sherry Turkle made the front cover of Wired Magazine as an advocate of how social media improved life. However her stand now is quite the opposite. She believes that technology is taking us places where we do not want to go. We appear to be alone but together and we are getting used to this new way. She asked people “what’s wrong with having a conversation?” In return she received a common reply of “because it takes place in real time”. It seems that we prefer to edit and polish what we say and present ourselves in the way that we want to be presented. The unfortunate thing is that texting doesn’t allow you to gain a deeper understanding of a person as you don’t experience their true self. She claims we are so addicted to our phones because they offer us 3 fantasies:

  • We can put our attention anywhere we want
  • We will always be heard
  • We will never have to be alone

These three points are the main reasons why so many of us retreat into the safety of our phone conversations. Turkle fears that if we continue down this path, friends become more of a tool to feel alive and present, rather than providing a feeling of companionship. She fears that we may eventually replace our friends with social robots to gain that feeling of companionship again.


  • Read a book for longer than 5 minutes
  • Enjoy your dinner outside without your phone
  • Take a hike through your local park or walking trails
  • Start a conversation with someone you don’t know at the bus stop
  • Take a friend out to dinner and talk to him, and him only
  • Listen to a lecture with your full attention… that means you university students
  • Experience an event through your eyes and write a journal entry about it later, you’ll remember it so much more!
  • Take an “I am here day”


My life is peaceful and relaxed because I choose to make it that way. Take time to do the things you love such as attending concerts, or hitting the gym and do them with your phone off!

When I’m eating dinner with friends, and they’re only partially listening as they send of texts to all these friends who are not present at the table, I go bananas! Or when someone at the concert is watching it through their phone rather than fully experiencing it. Even these small enjoyable things are lost upon this generation and I don’t believe we will ever fully discover it again. Perhaps only in small periods of abstinence from technology will we rediscover what it is to enjoy the sounds of nature or immerse oneself completely at a concert.

I realize I can go on forever about this topic, and I think it’s become quite longwinded. To really hit this one home I invite you to listen to an amazingly powerful POEM by Gary Turk called Look Up. It describes a love story and how the man has no regrets in his life, how if not for looking up from his phone, he would never have run into that beautiful woman he now calls his wife. I think that we all need to realize that it is OKAY to ask a stranger for directions, and the little gaps in conversation with friends at dinner should not be filled in with text messages. I fear that we all will become too dependent upon social media as our primary way of conversation and lose the ability to hold a face to face conversation. I fear that our lives will be full of regrets because we chose to stay in with our online friends instead of going out with our real ones. So many opportunities arise from just saying “I’m in, let’s do it”. So go out with your friends, and when you’re alone, don’t reach for the phone, embrace that me time.

As each consecutive sentence has been typed onto this blog, I feel myself become more aware. The first few sentences I was consistently checking my phone, Facebook, and Twitter; writing was slow and choppy. As sentences became paragraphs I seemed to lose interest in my phone, I started to embrace the solitude. Writing came more easily to me, my focus was here and now and the words began to flow like water. I hope you have taken away some small piece from this blog as I have. May you find comfort in yourself and enjoy more of life, not through your phone, but through your body and mind.



The Evolution of Humans… More Machine Than Man?

We all remember Arnold Schwarzenegger playing as The Terminator (at least maybe in one of the sequels)Terminator3-09, Joel Kinnaman as Robocop and maybe even The Six Million Dollar Man, Steve Austin. All
of these sci-fi characters have been integrated with some sort of bionic mechanism, giving them an edge against normal humans. This idea seems very futuristic but has actually become a part of the present… don’t be too scared. The technology right now is not as advanced as Robocop, but it could get there. The industry of bionics is rapidly evolving; some fanatics believe that everyone in the future will be wearing some sort of bionic equipment, from new hands to new feet.

Bionics, huh?

Bionics is the bridge between human and design. It is an attempt to bridge the gap between human disability and ability. Bionics is the science of replacing part of a living organism with a robot, the stuff of life meets a machine. What if I told you that there was something on this planet that fits the following description: it is not human, can walk, talk and has a beating heart? Would you believe me? Turns out I’m not kidding. His name is Frank and he is the very first Bionic Man. Frank is a great demonstration of the bionics industry, consisting of 28 of “the most advanced artificial body parts available today from laboratories and research centers around the world”, as well as implantable synthetic organs.

Meet Frank:

You’re telling me The Six Million Dollar Man Is Real?! That’s Preposterous.

No Grandpa, we’re not quite there yet, but we have certainly made some progress. In recent years, advancement within the human bionics industry has sky rocketed. Being witness to peg legs and hooks turning into the bionic machinery now available for amputees is truly remarkable. Decades ago the thought of a paraplegic being able to play soccer was unthinkable, but not anymore. At the FIFA World Cup this month (GO Italy!) the traditional first kick of the ball will be performed by a paralyzed teenager. The Walk Again Project will attempt a demonstration of their robotic body suit and how it will allow the paralyzed teenager to get up and kick the soccer ball; the teenager completely controlling his own movements. The suit consists of an exoskeleton which is hooked up to a non-invasive head piece that detects the paraplegic’s neural signals; if the teenager thinks about kicking the ball, neural signals will be interpreted as so and the exoskeleton will perform the movement.  A paper published in the Scientific American revealed that a chip consisting of synthetic photoreceptors (part of the eye that is stimulated by light) implanted into the retina of one of the patient’s blind eyes restored his vision. The patient has retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic condition which destroys the cells sensitive to light that line the retina.  The chip replaces his damaged photoreceptors, allowing stimulation to occur, ultimately sending a signal through the optic nerve to the brain. It restored the patient’s vision; however the patient couldn’t produce sharp images, only distinguish shapes. Currently the most advanced mechanism for vision restoration would be the Argus II, made by Second Sight. I won’t bog you down with hundreds of links to various different bionics but here is a list of a couple cool ones to check out: the i-Limb, Rex exoskeleton, and BiOM.

What If This Technology Gets Into The Wrong Hands?


As is the usual way of things, new technology gets adapted for militaristic purposes. Robocop may soon become a reality and come knocking at your doorstep. HULC is a military exoskeleton designed to support the heavy loads that soldiers bear during combat without decreasing mobility. As technology becomes more advanced the possibility of a super soldier will become very real. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is constantly looking for new advancements in military, human bionics is one of them. They could be trying to make a deal with Robert Downey Junior for his Iron Man suit at this very moment, or recreate it if it’s just a fake movie prop? It’s unfortunate to see technology that’s being used to help paralyzed patients walk again also being used to fight wars. It is men like Professor Yoshiyuki Sankai (developer of the Hybrid Assistive Limb (HAL)) who use their developed technology for the health and wellness of people. He has rejected multiple offers from different militaries and will continue to do so. It is people like Professor Sankai, who see their technology being used for helping humanity not hurting it; that can prevent this tech from becoming militaristic.

Below is a video demonstration some of the current exoskeleton technologies, check it out!

Hugh Herr: A Visionary in Bionics


Hugh Herr had both legs amputated due to frostbite while mountain climbing. He wears BiOM prosthetic legs that can simulate regular walking. He’s a fanatic of bionics. He viewed his amputations not as a loss, but as an advantage; it gave him a blank slate in which to work with. He designed feet for climbing narrow fissures, spiked feet for ice walls, it gave him prowess among his mountain climbing peers. He visions a world in which the paralyzed can walk without restriction, the ability to express themselves.

He quotes,

“Every person should have the right to live life without disability. See a loved one, run a marathon, dance… the list goes on and on. We can achieve this if we accept that humans are not disabled, instead technology is disabled. We can transcend our disability through technological innovation. We will end disability.”

A beautiful speech that would captivate any person with a disability; and yet I find myself taking for granted those little things in life.

I am a huge advocate of Ted Talks, and so will leave you with Hugh Herr’s below.

What does the future have to offer?


As the technology improves we will see the evolution of the human body. Stronger, smarter, and more efficient; a super human race if you will. The future of bionics poses many questions. Will we become too dependent upon it, our bodies growing useless without it? Will we decide that our own healthy limbs are inefficient and replace them with bionic ones?  Does our new super human species replace our natural one? Or will we follow the word of Dr. Meyer, “the goal is not to replace the human being, the ultimate goal is to provide technology to fix a broken person.” Future bionic eyes could not only restore vision to blind people, but perhaps enhance it; maybe even giving us vision like predators from the movie The Predator. As a northern Ontario boy I wouldn’t mind predator vision, it would make hunting so much easier! Perhaps something reminiscent of the video game Crackdown where we are continuously upgrading our speed, jump height, strength etc. could happen.

The endless possibilities in human bionics are amazing.  I’m very excited and also scared to see what the future has to offer. I shall leave you with the words of Oscar Goldman as he responds to Harve Bennet (Harve Bennet describes Steve Austin from The Six Million Dollar Man as “a man barely alive”)

“Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world’s first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better… stronger… faster”