The robot revolution is looking a lot less cute

Xenobots that can perform simple tasks, behave autonomously and reproduce themselves, anyone?

"The cuteness of robots may make us lower our guard and forget questions of privacy and security."

This warning comes from Cherie Lacey, writing in Cosmos in 2017. Your day-to-day interactions with robots may be different to mine, but I wouldn't characterise them as super-cute.

In fact, individuals who are leading how tech is transforming our industry seem frequently to have a recurring question about the balance between the speed and efficiency that tech promises and the workload that it creates to put that in place.

This is in big contrast with the machine robot revolution that liberated millions of women from their household chores last century. While the current generation of robots are seemingly making more work for individuals or shifting the balance of who does the work (after all, phone banking means that you do the work instead of a bank teller), the introduction of the vacuum cleaner and washing machine meant significant time saved at home that then allowed huge change in women's lives.

In 1900, the average household spent 58 hours a week on housework, including meal preparation, laundry and cleaning – a figure that dropped to 18 hours in 1975. A US housewife, Mrs Verrett, reported to one survey that her washing took her four hours to do by hand. With her new washing machine, this transformed to 41 minutes. Without the machine, she walked 3,181 feet to do the washing versus 332 feet with the machine.

In 1920, an article in the Ladies' Home Journal entitled "Making housekeeping automatic" claimed that appliances could save a four-person family 18.5 hours a week in housework. This machine revolution freed up women to take jobs outside the home and boosted the economy, with more disposable income and more leisure time to spend it in.

One question this poses is: when the robot revolution frees up media people, what will they spend their time on?

Planning for this is an essential part of any business in our sector's transformation agenda. This isn't just about getting the robots working. It is about leveraging the benefits across the whole agency.

The second issue that Lacey's comment raises is privacy and confidentiality. Security of data is the business of media agencies and managing this is our trade. In life outside the walls of agencies, though, robots are getting smaller and cleverer – and, yes, they are coming alive.

To date, despite huge differences between the robots of science fiction and the robots in our offices, there has been one firm similarity, as The Economist pointed out in January. They are mechanical, built from metal and plastic, and stuffed with electronics.

This won't be the case in the future. A team at the University of Vermont and Tufts University have designed organic robots from biological cells. Just a millimetre in size, these xenobots can move and perform simple tasks. They are capable of behaving autonomously and might be capable of reproducing themselves.

Currently, they have short lives – a couple of weeks at most – and they can't nourish themselves, but all of this is open to experimentation. And this may need regulation, since it raises the possibility of "escapees establishing themselves in the wild".

Super-cute robots sound joyful in comparison to this.

Sue Unerman is chief transformation officer at MediaCom
Picture: Getty Images

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