Sexbots, laundroids and killer drones: The robot revolution got real in 2015

Evidence of humans fearing technology dates back to the Industrial Revolution. The year 2015 is when we started fearing the robot revolution – for real this time.

The most terrifying robot stories of 2015 encompass everything from spying toys to human-crushing machines

Hanson Robotics, the world's leading developer of human-like robots, unveiled its new humanoid Han in Hong Kong earlier this year. The robot's skin is made out of Frubber, an elastic polymer that mimics the human skin, and installed with about 40 motors on its face that help create various expressions. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

Evidence of humans fearing technology dates back to the Industrial Revolution, when what came to be known as "technophobia" was first observed.

Eighteenth-century factory workers worried that the development of new machines would take away their livelihoods and ability to survive.

As it turns out, some of those fears were justified.

Violent man-versus-machine conflicts saw members of the British working class destroying the devices that had replaced their jobs well into the 1800s, setting the stage for centuries of anti-robot rhetoric played out in books, movies and ideological movements.

Today, serious fears of a "robot revolution" are only just starting to crystallize for the average person – but it's happening quickly, and spreading far beyond the confines of science fiction.

The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.- Stephen Hawking

The year 2015 featured stories of robotic technology, artificial intelligence, autonomous weaponry and what the exponential rate of innovation in these sectors could mean for humanity.

And if foreboding statements by Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and other tech industry leaders this year prove true, robot-human relations could take a nosedive sooner than many of us expect.

"If any major military power pushes ahead with AI weapon development, a global arms race is virtually inevitable," reads an open letter from July signed by Hawking, Musk, and Steve Wozniak among others. "The endpoint of this technological trajectory is obvious: autonomous weapons will become the Kalashnikovs of tomorrow."

Here are some of the most "terrifying" news stories about robots from 2015, as judged by the reactions of our audience members, staffers and the world at large.

They took our jobs

Robots Xiaolan and Xiaotao are servers designed to bring customers their food at a restaurant that opened in Jinhua, Zhejiang province, China earlier this year. (Reuters)

Japanese data scientists predicted in early December that more than half of all jobs in Japan could be lost to machines by 2035. The same has been forecast for the U.K., which could eventually see 50 per cent of its workers replaced by robots, according to a recent Bank of England study.

"Why? Because 20th-century machines have substituted not just for manual human tasks, but cognitive ones too," said Bank of England chief economist Andy Haldane of the study's results. "The set of human skills machines could reproduce, at lower cost, has both widened and deepened."

Robear the Polar Bear robot demonstrates how it can transfer frail patients from a wheelchair to a bed or a bath. Shown to reporters earlier this year in Nagoya, Japan, the bot has been described as having 'a polar cub-like face with big doey eyes.' (Jiji Press/AFP/Getty Images)
Indeed, robots demonstrated an aptitude for jobs that fell far away from factory lines over the past 12 months.

Friendly humanoid receptionists made their way from Japan to Canada this year, where they already had jobs lined up at Edmonton's Fantasyland Hotel.

Robots also made headlines in 2015 for working as bank tellers, department store greeters and even actors.

The health-care industry, too, continues to be rocked by new technologies that either promise, or already do everything from take care of dementia patients and perform surgery to sniff out cancer in humans.

Tree planting robots, delivery drones, robot first respondersflying farm workersrobo-garbage collectors and, of course, drivers, made waves as well.

Not even dogs are safe from technological unemployment, thanks to the advent sheep-herding drones.

They did our chores (... on their own)

Creepy, cool or disturbingly sexy? Tesla's new automatic 'robot snake' car charger provoked some strange feelings around the web this week. (Tesla Motors/YouTube)

Robot chefs? Check. Robot yard workers? Check. Robots that will wash, fold and put away your laundry? Check.

It's hard to say much that's negative about machines that take away our most dreaded household tasks, and yet, the very idea of a robot butler still creeps many people out – particularly now, with AI advancements that have seen bots teaching themselves how to do things without our help.

In August, Tesla unveiled a functional charger prototype for its Model S electric car that can purportedly find a charging port, plug itself in, and juice the vehicle up without any sort of human assistance.

Another project deemed spooky on the viral web this year was Google's deep dive into Artificial Neural Networks and the ensuing images of "dreams" machines were said to have had.

An EU-funded project that made headlines in August similarly featured a robot that was "teaching" itself to cook with information it found online.

And robots are now being taught to disobey humans – for their own safety.

Our safety, on the other hand, is being tackled through research that involves robots punching humans.

They spied on us

Mattel had privacy advocates up in arms this year over the release of Hello Barbie, a doll that can record conversations and engage in two-way dialogue with children. (Mattel)

Barbie isn't a robot, technically speaking, but rig her up with a Wi-Fi connected microphone system and... well, she isn't not a robot.

Mattel's Hello Barbie toy made waves earlier this year when privacy advocates learned that the "interactive doll" could record children's playtime conversations and respond once the encrypted audio had been transmitted to a cloud server.

The toymaker was criticized for the doll's eavesdropping and data-gathering functions, but it was far from the first company to put products with these capabilities into people's homes.

Former Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian went after Samsung in February after it was discovered that its SmartTVs could record private conversations taking place within homes and then share them with third-party services.

Internet-connected household devices such as baby monitors, fitness trackers and other "always-listening" tech products were also slammed as a threat to our privacy in 2015.

They started to look like us

Nope, that's not Sarah Palin. Yangyang the android showed off a wide range of facial expressions at Beijing's Global Mobile Internet Conference in April. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

You know what's scarier than a T-800 Terminator's hyperalloy endoskeleton? A robot that looks like one of us.

While they're nowhere near as lifelike as what was seen in the hit 2015 film Ex Machina, humanoid robots with elastic polymer skin and complex facial motor systems brought us one step closer to seeing machines that are indistinguishable from humans – on the surface, at least.

Some even described the latest iteration of Japan's Geminoid F as "sexy" when she made her debut at the World Robot Conference in Beijing last month.

They threatened to replace our lovers & families 

Engineer-inventor Douglas Hines poses in 2010 with his company's True Companion sex robot, Roxxxy, a 'life-size robotic girlfriend complete with artificial intelligence and flesh-like synthetic skin.' (AFP/Getty Images)

A team of European robot ethicists made headlines in September for spearheading an initiative aimed at stopping the development of sex robots for the purported sake of women, children and men everywhere.

"Introducing sex robots that could replace partners is the extreme of this trend, where we start to objectify our human relationships," said one of the project's organizers at the time. "In five to 10 years time this will be a common product in any random sex store."

More recently, chatter has been building about the possibility of machines like Japan's adorable "emotional robot" Pepper and others like it being used to raise children – or even act as a substitute for children (and/or friends)

Once again, pets are not safe from being replaced in this context either.

They got better at killing us

The kind of artificially intelligent soldier-robot from the futuristic movie The Terminator may be a long way off, but policy analysts are grappling now with limits on the military use of robots. (Herwig Prammer/Reuters)

One of 2015's most alarming robot news stories was that of a machine at a German auto factory that killed a 22-year-old human worker by grabbing and crushed him against a metal plate.

Also scary was the volume of stories this year about military advancements in robotic technology. 

Lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) were the subject of hot debate all year as lawmakers deliberated over how to regulate robots that could eventually have the ability to select, target and engage in deadly attacks without human intervention.

The United Nations will host a third meeting to discuss the issue with representatives from around the world in April.

Meanwhile, technology companies and government agencies continue to build increasingly deadly machines that could one day replace humans on the battlefield — or rise up and kill us all, if you read some internet forums.

They made us inexplicably angry

The Canadian researchers who created hitchBOT as a social experiment announced in early August that someone in Philadelphia had damaged the robot beyond repair, ending its brief American tour. (Rebecca Tennenbaum)

Robot fans around the globe were outraged in August to learn that Canada's own "social robot" HitchBOT had been vandalized in Philadelphia and left without a head just two weeks into its first tour across the U.S. 

pair of YouTube pranksters later claimed responsibility for a fake video of the attack, and while online users decried their actions, many people also appeared to delight in watching someone kick Boston Dynamics' Spot the robot dog.

Research released this year by Osaka University also indicated that violence against robots could be a growing issue  – particularly among children, who were observed hitting, kicking and verbally abusing a shopping robot in surveillance footage from a Japanese mall this year.

Rise of the cyborgs?

You know what they say: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em... though in this case, it would be more like "incorporate them into your body."

Ray Kurzweil, Google's director of engineering and a noted futurist and inventor, made a startling prediction in June while speaking at a New York conference.

"In the 2030s, we're going to connect directly from the neocortex to the cloud... We will be able to fully back up our brains."

Take that for what you will, but it's worth noting that 78 per cent of the 147 predictions Kurzweil made in his 1999 book The Age of Spiritual Machines were deemed "entirely correct" within 10 years.

Among those predictions were the rise of portable computing, wireless technology replacing cables and the distribution of music in an entirely digital form.

Just saying.


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