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Hitting the Books: Robots came for our jobs, then they came for our coffee

When our connected future isn't all it's cracked up to be.
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Welcome to Hitting the Books. With less than one in five Americans reading just for fun these days, we've done the hard work for you by scouring the internet for the most interesting, thought provoking books on science and technology we can find and delivering an easily digestible nugget of their stories.

Talking to Robots: Tales From Our Human-Robot Futures
by David Ewing Duncan


Book cover

We have no chance of escaping the coming robot revolution, nor should we want to. Our modern lives are already full of robots -- they're in our phones, our cars, hospitals and boardrooms, assisting everyone from factory workers to astrophysicists. They make our lives overwhelmingly better -- that is, until one gets between a hungover human and their morning jolt of java.

In Talking to Robots, journalist and author David Ewing Duncan -- with help from some of today's leading scientific researchers -- presents 24 visions of the future and what our personal and professional interactions might look like once robots finish taking over.

Coffee Delivery Bot


Waiting.

Waiting.

Cranky.

Need coffee.

It's so early in the morning.

Need my hit of caffeine.

Now.

Wait, here it comes!

My holo-app has detected my incoming coffee delivery robot drone, designated as CoffeeBot-FRED.

It's only 4.7634 minutes away.

Whew!

I track it on my 3-D GPS holo-app as the drone bobs and weaves. It's looping around, using elaborate sensors to avoid literally billions of other drones buzzing through the sky even this early in the morning—huge driverless bus and car drones taking people to work, and Amazon delivery drones that range from the size of an old-style semi to the size of a hummingbird. All these drones zip, zap, and fly amid police surveillance drones, anti- surveillance drones, 1-800-FLOWERS drones, baby diaper delivery and pickup drones, birthday surprise drones, carbon monitoring drones, emergency condom delivery drones, and every other sort of robot drone for everything that humans do.

Once, before the Drone Age, people supposedly could see the sky uncluttered by buzzing, hovering flying machines. Back then, at this early hour just after dawn, they say you could actually see the sunrise—clouds dappled in orange, yellow, red, and pink glowing with the dawn. They could see sunsets, too.

I'm not kidding! You've seen the vids, and some of us have traveled to drone- free zones to see for ourselves.

None of this matters, however, as I lie under my covers, waiting, waiting, waiting!

Jesus. It's still 4.7634 minutes away.

Are you fucking kidding me?!

Uh-oh, that did it. My agitation has generated concern with my iHealth X-700, which is monitoring all my health metrics (see "Doc Bot"). I get a small flag that pops up on the holo-dashboard floating above my head, informing me that my cortisol levels are elevated, and the flush in my face is increasing, though it's undetectable by human eyes. Out of habit, I glance at the stress metrics on the holo- display, even though I don't really care right now. Actually, they're not that bad, just slightly out of range.

Shall I inform your iDoc bot? The words from my biometric monitor bot float in the air, appearing as a readout in soothing light blue and green letters and images.

I shake my head. It's nothing a little joe won't take care of.

Then I wonder: Am I addicted?

And just like that, an ad pops up for a caffeine addiction detection app. Amazon Bot Neural-Prime is offering it at 30 percent off if I buy it using Opti-Order Prime XT Deluxe, which allows me to select products and purchase them literally with a blink of my robo-enhanced eye.

I ignore the ad, not really caring if I'm hooked on joe.

"Come on," I say out loud as I watch CoffeeBot-FRED hover in a holding pattern, waiting for a space big enough to fly through without smashing into other drones.

3.7633 minutes.

3.7632 minutes.

3.7631 minutes.

Great. A whole 0.0003 minutes closer—which of course isn't accurate, since the drone has been obviously hovering and barely moving for something, like, five minutes. Why, for fuck's sake, did these coffee delivery apps say a drone is just 3.7631 minutes away when it could be ten minutes until it actually gets here?

I verbally order my iHealth X-700 to stand down—and repeat the command for all my machines to go into sleep mode—machines that monitor not only my health metrics but also the air moisture and chemical content in my sky-condo, the weather outside, and much, much more. My holo-feed shows the ongoing data on these small dashboards that float in the air, ghostlike apparitions of displays and data glowing in pleasant colors that I can see through. My feed also displays a queue of waiting messages for me to read once I get my joe (most of them are stupid holo-ads), plus various news feeds that normally I like to read and watch. Right now, though, they're driving me crazy with their gentle beeps and chirps.

"What part of 'sleep mode' didn't you understand?" I say, realizing that my sarcasm is lost on most of these nonsentient machines.

But my bots should know that I can't handle all this without my first coffee!

2.9335 minutes. A little better, even if the app shows CoffeeBot-FRED hovering again.

Wow, I just had a crazy thought. I hear that some people are buying old-fashioned coffeemakers that people used ages ago. Apparently, you actually grind the coffee beans yourself and put them into a papery thing. (What's it called? A filter?) You then heat up some water and the machine makes the coffee for you.

No drones!

This is how people got their fix before coffee delivery drones, an idea, by the way, that originally came from an ancient computer company called IBM. In the early twenty- first century, they patented the first coffee delivery drone designed to deliver this luscious liquid directly into your cup or by lowering a cup of coffee using an unspooling string—both options still available today. The original idea was to have coffee delivery drones available just in offices, where workers could summon them with a wave of their hand.

The patents also detailed biometric systems on the drones that would measure facial expressions and other metrics that indicated whether a person ordering the coffee was tired and perhaps needed a strong blend, or if a person had reached their limit of caffeine and might become jittery and agitated if they drank more.

1.0001 minutes.

It's almost here!

0.0022 minutes.

It's here! It's here!

I raise myself up on my elbow, still in bed, as I hear the drone portal in my roof open and shut and the low, steady, reassuring buzz of the tiny flying machine approaching.

"I thought you'd never come," I say, careful to smile and sound friendly so the drone's rating software will give me five stars. The drone's holo-readout flashes back a smiley face.

The grinning drone hovers for a minute, its precious cargo dangling below it in warming pouches. It's scanning my biometrics to gauge my disposition. I smile as best I can, barely able to contain myself I want that hit of caffeine so badly.

"We're sorry, madam," says the drone's soothing voice, its holo-readout flashing an expression of concern, "but we detect a higher than nominal level of anxiety in your biometrics, which indicates that you should forgo full-strength coffee this morning."

I'm irate as my own biometric readings floating in the air agree with the drone's assessment. Traitors!

Of course, these are all mere suggestions. As a human, I have the final decision over what happens here. But a failure to comply with the machine's recommendations could mean a less-than-five-star rating.
"How about a nice cup of decaf?" suggests the drone in a pleasant voice, smiling again, "or an herbal tea? Perhaps mint or chamomile?"

"Fuck that!" I erupt, and instantly regret it.

The drone shifts to a frowny face.

"Please, madam, there is no need to get further excited."

"Yes, yes, you're right," I manage to say with a smile so fake that it almost certainly won't fool the biometrics.

"I really would like a strong brew," I say, knowing that this will impact my rating, but what the hell.

"If you insist," says the drone with an even more frowny face, even as my iHealth X-700 begins blinking a stronger suggestion to inform my iDoc bot about my anxious state.

CoffeeBot-FRED hovers there for a moment as it begins to brew my order. Then it flashes an expression of sorrow with virtual tears flowing on its facial readout as it informs me that it's actually out of strong-brew coffee. It apologizes for the inconvenience and for an apparent glitch in its sensor array that didn't notice its strong-brew tank was on empty.

"I have just ordered another coffee delivery drone for you," says CoffeeBot-FRED soothingly. "Please consult your app."

And just like that, CoffeeBot-FRED zips away.

My hands are shaking as I check my holo-app and see that another CoffeeBot is indeed coming, CoffeeBot-FATIMA. The icon appears on my 3-D GPS holo-tracking grid along with another smiley face that says, "Your order is on its way!"

"Thank God," I manage to mutter as I get an incoming holo-text from a very concerned looking iDoc bot that looks like Ellen Pompeo playing Meredith Grey from Grey's Anatomy, which I refuse to accept. Ads for various meditation neural-apps and antianxiety nutraceuticals also pop up in my holo-feed, which I immediately blink away.

Then I see the time to delivery: 17.6533 minutes! CoffeeBot-FATIMA appears to be hovering amid the billions of drones, apparently not moving at all.

Excerpted from the book Talking to Robots: Tales From Our Human-Robot Futures by David Ewing Duncan. Copyright © 2019 by David Ewing Duncan. Published by arrangement with Dutton, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

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