Dobie: The rise of the machines -- it's happening

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Siri. Siri. Photo Credit: General Motors

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Michael Dobie Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday

Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

A news item caught my eye:

Robotic help-wanted ads were up 13 percent in 2013.

Who exactly answers such an ad? If it's the robot, I'm thinking you've got a keeper.

But I digress. Today is the last day of National Robotics Week, and the trend lines are all up. Some 168,000 industrial robots were sold in 2013, a 5 percent jump from 2012.

Artificial intelligence abounds these days, and not just in the movies.

Not long ago, robots were repositories of great hopes and greater fears. Science fiction writers and filmmakers saw in them both the triumph and dark side of technology.

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But as startups, robots were small time. Thy couldn't do much and weren't that smart. As technology improved -- digital sensors and more powerful silicon chips, for example -- so did robots. Now they're attracting important investment dollars. Google bought eight robotics companies last year. Amazon, too, is investing -- remember those fantastical deliveries by drones?

And folks are devising more ingenious uses for robots. We're talking way beyond the dozens of robotic vacuum cleaners on the market. Meet Sandy and Rosie, two robots sandblasting the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge. And border patrol robots reportedly used by Israel and South Korea. And robots used to manipulate lights and cameras on the set of the movie "Gravity." And Baxter, a robot with two arms and a friendly interface that was programmed by Cornell University students to work in a supermarket checkout lane.

Driverless cars are on the horizon. Take me to the office, Jeeves2053c.

The advance of robots is creating a lot of serious issues, not the least of which is their effect on the labor force. They will improve efficiency, yes, but how many workers will they displace? With our identity as human beings so linked to the work we do, what happens if we become surplus labor?

At the moment, I'm wrestling with a different form of artificial-intelligence angst. I'm trying to figure out what I think about Siri.

Officially, Siri is an Apple application that functions as a very effective personal assistant. In reality, Siri is the woman who knows everything.

My wife and I admittedly are a little late on this but we pulled out our iPhone the other day and asked Siri for the weather. She responded in three seconds. On a lark, my wife thanked her.

"You don't have to thank me," Siri replied. "I'm just doing my job."

That was a little weird. Then we asked her for the Yankees score. And thanked her again.

"Your satisfaction is my greatest pleasure," she said.

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She hasn't offered to make my evening tea. Yet. But I'm beginning to like her. That worries me.

On the other hand, there's Jill, from my GPS.

I called on her recently as I drove to an unfamiliar venue in Brooklyn for a concert by the indie band Shearwater (the frontman is my daughter's boyfriend). I thought it was somewhere near the Gowanus Canal.

We were on the Belt Parkway, approaching the exit for Linden Boulevard, when Jill told me to get off. Every fiber of my being screamed not to listen to her. Stay on the Belt all the way to the Gowanus Expressway, my inner voice said.

I got off. And spent the next 75 minutes creeping block by block across Queens and Brooklyn, stopping at 417 traffic lights, until we finally got to The Bell House -- a few blocks from the Gowanus.

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I wonder what that says. I wanted to continue on my own. But I did what I was told.

I, robot.

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