The One Task a Robot Cannot Do

Michael Jai Grant
5 min readAug 17, 2022
Michael Grant folding his laundry while questioning the intricate parameters of his t-shirt.
I barely use my brain to do this… or do I?

From building cars to scanning the surface of Mars, there’s still one common task that keeps us very, very human.

Robots can do anything. The AI is developing at an exponential rate, not to mention the nano-mechanics and physical attributes of our helpful servants, the robots. They clean our floors, mow our lawns, build our cars, wash the windows of our tallest skyscrapers, cut metal, wood, paper or plastic into any shape we can dream of, and they never complain, never get tired, and require far-less servicing than we humans do when we try to accomplish these same tasks.

Lacking our fleshy, vital needs for air and food, we can send them into outer space, into the deepest parts of the ocean, or even into exploding volcanos or hurricanes to provide us with data, pictures, and materials so we can better understand our varied world(s). They already help us in surgeries, manufacturing, and some are even programmed to play with our dog and give them treats. Robots will perform critical tasks we can’t even dream of yet, as an extension of our infinite imagination, to supplant our limited human capabilities.

But they cannot sort, fold and put away our laundry.

Think about the functions involved requiring the billions of brain cells we’ve cultivated and trained over the millennia to do this one, ignorable, yet entirely crucial act.

First you have to remove the load from the dryer or the line and put it on a table. A robot can certainly be taught to open the door, pull the contents into a basket, pick up the basket and bring it to the sorting counter. Any five-year-old can do this (with supervision) but what if there’s a small sock stuck by the filter or wedged in the fins? Will the robot find it? Will the robot know to find it?

And once it’s all on the table, this massive heap of varied textures, colors and types, what will the robot do? It will need to pull an item, presumably from the top, stretch it out without stretching it too far, scan it, identify its purpose (shirt, underwear, sock, dress), the size, if it’s one of a pair, and to whom it belongs in the family. Then it will need to go through the complicated “shapes” and procedures of folding it properly. Underwear is easy, polos are specific, but watch what your own hands do when you match your…