Oracles of the countertop

I have an op-ed in today’s New York Times about how domestic robots, which we always assumed would resemble ourselves when they entered our homes, have instead arrived in the form of chatbot-powered smart speakers. The shift from the Jetsons’ embodied Rosie to Amazon’s disembodied Alexa says something important about our times, I suggest. The piece begins:

From the moment we humans first imagined having mechanical servants at our beck and call, we’ve assumed they would be constructed in our own image. Outfitted with arms and legs, heads and torsos, they would perform everyday tasks that we’d otherwise have to do ourselves. Like the indefatigable maid Rosie on The Jetsons, the officious droid C-3PO in Star Wars and the tortured “host” Dolores Abernathy in Westworld, the robotic helpmates of popular culture have been humanoid in form and function.

It’s time to rethink our assumptions. A robot invasion of our homes is underway, but the machines — so-called smart speakers like Amazon Echo, Google Home and the forthcoming Apple HomePod — look nothing like what we expected. Small, squat and stationary, they resemble vases or cat food tins more than they do people.

Echo and its ilk do, however, share a crucial trait with their imaginary forebears: They illuminate the times. Whatever their shape, robots tell us something important about our technologies and ourselves. …

Read on.

Image: still from the 1940 film “Leave It to Roll-Oh.”