Robot Butlers and Jet Packs: How Close Are We Really?

BY Miles O'Brien  November 15, 2010 at 2:29 PM EST

Getty Images

A man with a jetpack makes a spectacular landing before Super Bowl I in 1967 at the Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles. Photo by Vic Stein/NFL

I will confess right up front that I wasted a lot of time watching television when I was young. I suspect a lot of people in my business have the same couch-potato pedigree.

In any case, growing up on a steady diet of the tube in the ’60s gave many people of my generation a palpable sense of excitement about the technology that was just around the corner. After all, we were on our way to the moon! We could hardly wait for that and what surely would happen on Neil’s heels…

If I tried to imagine myself in 2010 back then, I would surely be donning a jet pack to zoom over to my flying car, which would Jetson me home to my robot butler. He would be cooking up some haute cuisine (mac and cheese, of course!).

So here we are in 2010 — and it turns out the future was not so bright that we had to wear shades after all.

Turns out it is a lot easier to draw a robot — or put a human inside a ‘bot suit — than it is to make a real machine in our own image.

Reality does indeed bite. At NASA, they complain about a latter-day version of the missile gap: the chasm between science fiction imagination (coupled with Hollywood magic) — and cold, hard reality. Indeed, over the years the right-brainers have filled the vacuum (if you will) with some vivid, detailed depictions of some pretty cool visions of the future. The left-brainers just haven’t been able to keep up.

So it should come as no surprise that tourists who visit the Kennedy or Johnson Space Centers often cannot hide their disappointment when they realize there really isn’t a warp drive — or a zero-gravity room.

I was at JSC in Houston when all this came together — and I got the inspiration for the piece “Robots Rising.” I visited a lab that is out of Tourmobile range and met Robonaut 2 (R2). NASA developed the humanoid robot in partnership with General Motors. The automaker is looking for ways to replace UAW rank and file with automatons that can perform tasks without injury (and who never demand a smoke break or a pension). Could the home of American human space flight share the same goal? Sounds like heresy to me.

Actually, NASA envisions R2′s progeny will assist human beings in space — as tool caddies for spacewalkers – or maybe latrine cleaners some day.

There is a fair amount of irony here: all these years, the proponents of piloted propulsion to the planets have stressed how indispensable the humans are. They frequently point to the Hubble Space Telescope as the ultimate case in point. Time and again, humans saved the day making the machine better able to bring home the scientific bacon.

But in theory, R2 sends NASA down a slippery slope where human-like robots could do everything a carbon-based air-breather can. Wither the astronaut corps then?

As I learned in shooting this story, that vision is marching toward us inexorably — in stiff robot cadence — but it is still down the road a piece.

Making machines with hands that match the dexterity of ours, or the ability to walk and keep their balance as we do without any conscious thought — or the power to communicate on human terms — is no small task.

They aren’t here in my kitchen whipping up a meal as I would have predicted in 1969, but I can hear their footsteps in the distance.