A Pocket Guide to the Robot Revolution
Sorting the good from the bad, the creepy from the adorable
Adorable, and also Benign
This therapeutic baby-seal robot makes eye contact and responds to a person’s touch and speech.
A hamsterlike toy robot that could gradually learn to speak English. Tens of millions of them were sold in the late ’90s.
Designed as a prototype human assistant, it can walk up and down steps, dance—even conduct an orchestra.
Sony’s robot dog was cute, but not $2,000 cute.
Just Plain Adorable
Pixar’s forlorn romantic had a Sisyphean task—to clean a dead Earth abandoned by humans—that suggested human decline is the prerequisite for robots’ rise.
A research robot that’s supposed to learn how to interact with humans, Simon sends social cues via its expressions and gestures.
This humble droid from Star Wars established that machines need not seem even a little human to be relatable.
This vacuum cleaner is just a disc on the floor. Even so, many owners get attached, and cringe when it bumps into things.
Lego Mindstorms NXT (2006)
This system made programmable robotics accessible to kids, but it was finicky—a reminder that humans and robots will never fully understand each other.
Nintendo ROB (1985)
The Robot Operating Buddy never worked very well, but it did help Nintendo sell video-game systems.
This one-foot-tall Japanese robot spent 18 months doing chores on the International Space Station.
Benign, but Still Creepy
Moley Robotic Chef (2017)
A pair of robotic arms sticking out from the kitchen backsplash, it promises to produce Michelin-star-worthy food. We’ll see …
A service robot for elderly and disabled people, it looks like a shell-shocked vacuum cleaner forced into human servitude.
Also known as Miim, this humanoid robot can sing and dance. Some have called it “hot.”
A headless, speechless cart that transports heavy containers.
Despite its appearance, petman is a friendly helper: It sacrifices itself for the good of humans by testing hazmat suits.
Adorable, but Terrifying
This tiny military robot can jump up to 30 feet over a wall or onto a building—a reminder that, like spiders, the smallest things can be among the most frightening.
One of the first robots that could reason about its future actions, Shakey got its name from its jerky movements, which were at once lovable and unsettling.
Just Plain Terrifying
In the 1886 novel The Future Eve, a fictional Thomas Edison creates this machine woman in order to avoid the “flaws” of a real one.
If you were lost, would you let this search-and-rescue robot carry you to safety?
Replicants, Cylons, and Other Robot Humans
The ultimate nightmare: that ordinary people might really be robots.
Terrifying and Creepy
Rossum’s Universal Robots (1921)
The Czech writer Karel Čapek coined the word robot in his play R.U.R. His “roboti” rose up against and annihilated their human overlords.
MQ-9 Reaper (2007)
Also known as the Predator B, this drone ushered in a new era of modern warfare, in which machines can do the fighting for us.
A soft, tiny robot that can scale walls and traverse narrow passages. Someday it might be able to sneak through vents to watch you.
Just Plain Creepy
Molecular-scale robots might have lifesaving applications, but the idea of billions of robot invisible to the human eye is enough to make anyone’s skin crawl.
This U.S.-military robot is meant to carry loads for soldiers, but it looks (and moves) like something out of an apocalyptic thriller.
Lexy and Tess (2014)
Pole-dancing robotic strippers. Nobody asked for this.
A Little of Everything: Creepy, Adorable, Terrifying, and Benign
HAL 9000 (1968)
A glowing red lens with a calm voice, hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey showed that the terror of robots is not just physical but existential: logic stripped of human reason.
Made by the same company as the Roomba, PackBot searched the World Trade Center rubble after 9/11 and helped Iraq War soldiers dispose of roadside bombs.
Eric Robot (1928)
One of the world’s first humanoid robots, Eric was built as a surrogate for the Duke of York and appeared in his stead at public events. Its head and limbs could be moved via remote control.
The nasa rover landed on Mars in 1997 to take pictures. Expected to work for just a week, Sojourner toiled for 85 days before shutting down.