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​The robots aren't just coming. They're already here

As machines increasingly sense what's going on and take action on their own, robots are blending into the world of humans, a robotics group leader says.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
2 min read
Andra Keay, managing director of Silicon Valley Robotics​
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Andra Keay, managing director of Silicon Valley Robotics​

Andra Keay, managing director of Silicon Valley Robotics

Stephen Shankland/CNET

DUBLIN -- You may not have noticed their arrival, but robots have become a technology of the present, not an idea of the future.

So believes Andra Keay, managing director of a consortium called Silicon Valley Robotics, speaking here at the Web Summit conference. But her definition of a robot includes much more than sci-fi movie characters like "Star Wars'" C3PO or "Interstellar's" TARS.

"Technically, a robot is just a machine that senses things and acts," she said. That includes the Relay robot butler that delivers snacks to hotel guests, the socially interactive Mabu Personal Healthcare Companion that reminds people to take their medication, and even automobiles that increasingly decide how we drive, she said.

"We have robots that look like things, robots that look like robots and robots that look like people," Keay said. "Every new car is a robot, but we usually just call them cars."

We're used to computing technology like PCs and smartphones changing our lives. Many of their effects take place in a virtual realm, though -- communications, social networks, photo sharing. Robots could bring similar electronic revolutions to the physical world.

A world filled with machines acting under their own initiative could give people the willies. But Keay believes it's just the newest example of humans creating things to better control their environment. "Civilization is the story of technology taming space and time," she said.

Ultimately, the robots will help us humans understand ourselves, better, too, by giving us a new point of comparison, she said: "It turns out the aliens are already here."