Sometimes, I admit, I could probably use a robot around the house. It could clean the bathrooms, vacuum the floor under Elly's high chair, bring beer from the fridge when the game goes into overtime, and have dinner waiting after a long day at work. A robot could maintain my bike and fix the car, remember where I put my keys, book airline tickets, and wait on the phone for hours with utility companies and government offices while I get on with my life.
Of course, they could do a lot more than that. They could help seniors and persons with disabilities get around their homes. They could work in mines and power plants, on mountaintops and at the bottom of the ocean, in radioactive tailing ponds, and other dangerous environments where humans can't go. They could perform delicate operations, under the direction of a surgeon, with a precision, speed and patience that no human could match.
And, if science fiction writers know anything, they could also take over the world and either enslave or eradicate us once they attain a certain level of higher consciousness and figure out that their human overlords are kind of jerks. This is the world of The Matrix, the Dune Universe, Terminator, Battlestar Galactica , and countless other Sci-Fi books and movies, and a world that some people fear is inevitable if we keep going down the same road to automation.
Humans vs. robots conflicts aside, there are also those who embrace the idea of sentient computers on the belief that humanity is ultimately doomed by a changing planet and solar system, and by our own physical limitations. Humans will likely never travel to another star, for example, or settle another planet millions of light years away, but robots made in the image of man, traveling the cosmos on sleep mode - possibly with jars full of cloned human embryos in the onboard freezer - just might make the trip on our behalf, even if takes a million years.
But at this point nobody has really figured out how far can go with artificial intelligence or robotics without stopping to take a collective breath. There are no international conventions or plans to discuss the possibilities in a global way. How do we intend to maintain control of the things we create when our creations will one day have the power the think for themselves?
We should probably answer these questions sooner than later in light of recent developments. Last week, researchers at Cornell University created a computer program that figured out the laws of motion by observing a swinging pendulum, accomplishing in less than a day something that took humans hundreds of years (blog.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/04/newtonai.html).