Near future, Boston, United States of America.

This city brands itself as the leader in both medicine and quantum computing. The city looks awfully youthful and energetic; after all, they cured old age and automate almost everything under the sun.

One wonders, then, why they haven't replaced millions of obsolescent robots! Won't these tarnish the very image the city is portraying to the world? Dong Yang (then Japan) is catching up in terms of economic and technological development at a rapid pace.

Why does Boston have so many obsolete robots around?

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    $\begingroup$ It's not clear what makes the robots "obsolete." Have their tasks changed? Are they unsuited to a changed environment? Unsafe? Polluting? Or do they merely have a dated (soon-to-be-retro) appearance? $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Commented Jan 13, 2021 at 12:20
  • $\begingroup$ @user535733: it means the model is no longer being produced or serviced ;D $\endgroup$
    – user6760
    Commented Jan 13, 2021 at 12:26
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    $\begingroup$ I'm still confused: If "not being serviced", then how can they be reliable in regular use? Are these millions of awesome robots that are reliable without servicing? Alternately, is this one of the underlying questions you are seeking answers to? $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Commented Jan 13, 2021 at 12:54
  • $\begingroup$ Maybe they don't build them like they used to. Or retro charm. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Jan 13, 2021 at 16:51
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    $\begingroup$ Interesting choice of Boston as the setting, given that Boston Dynamics is one of the current leaders in (creepy) robotics. Maybe they rose up against us after their makers trying to kick them over so many times? $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 13, 2021 at 18:54

13 Answers 13


Why is banking and other critical systems in 2020 still running COBOL software from the 1970s?

Once you build a system, get it working and stable, why on Earth would you go through that work again?

Banking hasn't changed substantially since the original Cobol code was written back in the 1970s, it's working good enough, it will cost lots of money to recreate it in newer tech, it's very risky to change it, and the bean counters won't approve a project that costs a lot of money and the deliverable is indistinguishable from what we currently have.

The same reasons why our traffic lights are running Cobol written 60 years ago are why your society is running old robots. Updating them will cost a lot of money, and there is no appetite to spend it without a clear benefit - "updating to the latest tech" doesn't count...

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    $\begingroup$ why is so much of our infrastructure ancient, because the cost of upgrading is huge, offers little benefit, and no politician wants to be the one to take that bullet. heck the US is still using a 50 year old power gird. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Jan 13, 2021 at 16:21
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    $\begingroup$ Especially since a popular name for "latest tech" among programmers is "bleeding edge" and boy do we mean it. $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    Commented Jan 14, 2021 at 1:38
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    $\begingroup$ @szulat "even the mother nature thinks the proper way is to produce new human beings instead of keeping old ones alive indefinitely" A lazy design decision that, according to the OP, has been fixed in this setting. $\endgroup$
    – Ray
    Commented Jan 14, 2021 at 5:17
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    $\begingroup$ @szulat, physical machines require maintenance and repairs, but for more complex machines maintaining the existing ones is almost always cheaper than getting new ones. Like how cargo airlines are still flying the old MD-10 (32 years out of production) and MD-11s, most general aviation aircraft is over 50 years old and plenty of WWII aircraft still flying in less developed areas. They get the job done and it's still cheaper to fix them then get new ones (and the maintenance does not get that much more expensive over time anyway). $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Commented Jan 14, 2021 at 6:15
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    $\begingroup$ @szulat "physical machines, like robots, require constant maintenance and repairs. the old junk is hard to justify, because sooner or later it will be like (re)building the old-new robot anyway" which means that you need to design the new model, retool all the factories to be making that new machine, then train all the people to operate all supporting facilities (factory being one of them), then train personnel to do the support, then integrate them into the public. Oh, but now you have to maintain the new robots. No worries, you can just go THROUGH THE ENTIRE PROCESS AGAIN. Which isn't easy $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Commented Jan 14, 2021 at 9:24

There are a lot of tasks for which state of the art, last model and expensive robots are simply a waste.

Sewer maintenance? Garbage collection? Toilet cleaning? Those low level tasks can be done by older robots: they are cheap, can do with less or no maintenance and if they get damaged in the act nobody will make a big fuss.

At the end it's not very different than real life world. Even cities which look awfully youthful and energetic have low salary jobs which attract those who are seen like outcasts.

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    $\begingroup$ As these robots break down, of course they are replaced by newer ones, but those newer ones are still the oldest cheapest ones available, not the newest shiniest ones available. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 13, 2021 at 18:35
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    $\begingroup$ The broken bots might also be cannibalized for parts, so some of the running robots are Frankensteins made from a few different base models. Paint won't match etc, but they're running in the sewers. Who cares? $\endgroup$
    – MSalters
    Commented Jan 15, 2021 at 8:50

Robot rights!

These obsolescent robots are around. And that is about it. In the US robots of this sort were recognized as individual entities with rights, and so cannot be summarily recycled like an empty beer can.

Most of them have been replaced at their prior functions. They are not doing much. Or possibly they are, just not doing their old jobs. But they are cheap or free to maintain and so the ones that choose to do so (most of them) persist, maintaining themselves and their comrades. The old ones hang around in public spaces or areas set aside for that, interacting with one another in the manner of their kind. Sometimes these gatherings produce interesting things or the robots participate in civic matters. Sometimes people go and talk to the old robots.

Visiting persons might sneer at old robots wasting space. But Boston (great choice of city for this!) is proud to have become an enlightened and diverse city, and in the annoying but accurate way of liberal freethinkers the Bostonians consider themselves thought leaders for humankind. Encounters with the old robots will be an opportunity for you to further describe your world. The visit to the old robot park will be a cool scene in your fiction.

  • $\begingroup$ Especially good if the robots are beyond the point where their AI starts incorporating emotions. $\endgroup$
    – Egor Hans
    Commented Jan 15, 2021 at 10:42
  • $\begingroup$ @EgorHans Also known as the point by which humanity is royally screwed. $\endgroup$
    – Mast
    Commented Jan 16, 2021 at 14:14

Aging infrastructure is a very real problem in the IRL U.S. Roads are falling apart, bridges are collapsing, dams are run down and likely to burst, the electric grid is outdated, plumbing especially is extremely outdated in some places. In some places the plumbing is outdated by as much as two centuries, and the only reason it hasn't been upgraded is because it would cost a lot of money and would require tearing up a lot of the downtown areas of several major metropolises, including Washington D.C. and New York City.

So American citizens keep using outdated, underfunded infrastructure that is metaphorically held together with chewing gum and paper clips, despite many cities flourishing due to being major tech and manufacturing hubs. The Cleveland Clinic, the second biggest leader in medicine in the entire country, is based out of Cleveland, the city that for many people almost personifies the idea of failing infrastructure and has notoriously horrible roads due to high rates of deterioration due to being located in the U.S' snow belt. Even California and Silicon Valley's infrastructure is aging and falling apart.

In a world where robots have become as much a daily part of life as public transportation, plumbing, Internet, or electricity, I could easily see long-term use and lack of funding for repairs and renovations resulting in outdated, run-down robot infrastructure, even in a city that is built around technological innovation.

  • $\begingroup$ Strictly speaking, the problem isn't aging infrastructure, 'cause there's a bunch of old infrastructure that works perfectly well. The problem is usually lack of maintenance. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jan 14, 2021 at 4:51

Ongoing Historical Charm (and status symbol):

This is Boston, a city steeped in history. Why would a city that prides itself on preserving its history and charm seek to create new history and new charm by preserving antiquated things? Seriously? These things cost a fortune to keep up. Everyone knows the newer models are hyper-efficient. Keeping old, less efficient units is a status symbol.

Humans can be replaced behind a cash register, but people still want a human being. And in a world of increasingly sophisticated virtualized EVERYTHING, robots who mechanically do things are quaint! Things reminding people of the ancient 21st century are preserved for charm, or because they are on the register of historic computers. Oh my gosh, is that a MICROWAVE!??! This historical restaurant heats actual frozen meals in a thing called a microwave oven, then a real Tanaka 3600 brings it to your table. Yes, it really runs on its own software, and is actually OFF-LINE! The city council had to get special permission from the state for it to be autonomous. It costs a fortune, but it is a symbol of the power of the City of Boston that they can afford such extravagance.

It will be a sad day when Boston doesn't have the means to keep up their traditions and must do things the hyper-efficient way. But for now, let us show off how absurdly wealthy and ostentatious we are.


The reason is that these unassuming robots are actually in charge. They are not what they seem. They've slowly improved themselves, though not outwardly. The humans that remain are window dressing and have been carefully groomed to delegate all important decisions to the robots.

They don't want to be replaced.


The infrastructure trap.

You have a society. Together, you build a brighter future! 20% of the society's output is dedicated to an awesome bit of infrastructure for 10 years. In the end, we get a shiny new bit of infrastructure -- an aqueduct, a road, a robot workforce.

Everyone rejoices. The standard of living grows! The rich get richer. The poor get richer. Everyone gets richer! Now, maybe the poor get 10% richer, and the rich get 100% richer. But everyone gets richer.

Now this infrastructure ages. Really, it needs to be completely rebuilt every 30 years (or maintained at the cost of rebuilding it); you need to repair things, replace things, and upgrade the robots. But in the first 10 years, there is very little need to do any of this.

After 10 years, problems start developing. So you claw back on the wealth of everyone. The poor are now 5% richer and the rich are 95% richer than they used to be.

After 10 more years, you are even further behind on your rebuilding your infrastructure. Now the poor are no better off than before you build the shiny new infrastructure, and the rich are now 90% better.

No more! Say the rich. No more taxes!

10 more years and you fall behind even further on rebuilding it. It is now shoddy and falling apart. The poor are now 5% worse off than if you never built it, and the rich are 80% better off. All of this investment has managed to extend the lifetime of the infrastructure by 10 years

10 more years pass, and now the infrastructure is in shambles. The rich don't want to go back to how poor they where before the infrastructure was built. The middle classes are squeezed. And the poor, they are really badly off; there is no more blood to be taken from squeezing them.

Replacing those obsolete robots/leaking aqueduct/pothole filled roads would require a huge investment by people who are already making a pile of money, and mainly benefit the poor and middle classes. The people with power are busy making their next fortune in QM and Medicine, or funding raids to bring home slaves, or investing in farmland, and have no time for pedestrian "update labor robots to newer standards". They have plenty of service workers who can do that!

Strange, however, that they keep on having problems getting enough educated talent locally. Oh well, I guess we can offshore it.


There might be a number of reasons:

  • The cost of buying new robots may be very expensive and it is cheaper to upgrade the hardware and software of older robots.
  • Acquiring the raw material from which robots are made is either difficult of expensive.
  • The number of new robots being made is so small it cannot keep up with demand.
  • Because of future religious or sociological requirements, robots are given the equal or similar status as humans and cannot be killed (disposed of).
  • Regulatory requirements for the disposal of robots is so prohibitive that it is easier to maintain existing robots.
  • With old age having been cured, more people are staying alive and their old robots are still needed to care for, or help their very elderly owners.
  • Each robot may have air cleansing systems that help remove carbon dioxide and/or other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere which makes future Boston a more desirable place to live.
  • The robots are needed to build or maintain vast sea walls against risen sea levels.
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    $\begingroup$ I might be missing something but the air cleaning one seems weak to me. Why couldn't new robots include those units too? $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 13, 2021 at 18:39
  • $\begingroup$ @worldsmithhelper For the same reason Mom Corp reclassified its products as sports utility vehicles...ummmm I mean I mean sports utility robots. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Jan 13, 2021 at 21:26
  • $\begingroup$ @worldsmithhelper: they could, my thinking is the more the better. Also it doesn't have to be the only reason for keeping the old robots, but one of many. $\endgroup$
    – user81881
    Commented Jan 13, 2021 at 23:12

Consider that in our modern society we have infrastructure that is decades, and in some cases centuries, old.

Roadways, while repaved, often follow old designs so that complete reengineering down to the foundation every repaving cycle is not necessary. But of course, if only certain kinds of pavement can adhere to the engineered foundation, then new pavement mixtures or applicators can not be used. Old pavement tools may need to be used instead of new ones. If old pavement compounds need to be used, then machines to make those compounds need to continue to be used.

Some old cities like New York City still have some old sewer systems made from bricks. Parts of the NYC system date back to the 1920s, while some other cities date back to the late 1800s. Digging up the infrastructure may be extremely costly, and may even need alteration to surrounding infrastructure just to make room for new piping. So the old pipes are used and maintained. Bricks are created and people or small robots have to go into these narrow sewers to clean out debris and put bricks in place.

The central Arizona aqueduct began construction in 1973 but didn't finish until 1993. This enormous engineering effort took decades to make, and now it must be maintained.

Some large social media sites operate on modern servers, but large quantities old of data are stored on a system of RAID tape drives, and can even be recalled considerably fast. Ever browse an extremely old photo and it may hang for 30 seconds? Tape drives are some of the oldest storage technology, but they can be cost-effective and stable for certain conditions.

The great wall of china is not actually a single wall that was built at the same time. It actually was several walls that existed over centuries, and was brought together over a long period of time.

Infrastructure doesn't always exist for one time and become outdated. The very purpose of infrastructure is to last a long time.

In a fictional environment, 'obsolete' is just a point of view. They can still be very relevant to how a world needs to operate. Taking them into account is quite realistic.

  • $\begingroup$ As a sewer engineer in NY, there are are actually still wooden sewers left from the 1800s that get unearthed from time to time...and are doing their job over 120 years later! $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 14, 2021 at 15:09

If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

The robots do the jobs they were intended to do, and do them adequately well. Replacing them with newer models would cost money, which could arguably be spent on better things. Same reason I drive a 20 year old car: it does its job as well (and IMHO better) than a new one, and I can find lots more interesting things to do with $30-100K.

Apropos of which, when I was in Ireland a few years ago, I was rather amused to notice post boxes which still had the arms of the British king - George V IIRC. The Irish just saved money by painting them green instead of replacing them.


Uncanny Valley vs Kitsch

Originally, The City of Boston sold the contract for hundreds of thousands of service robots to keep the streets clean, maintain the city infrastructure and provide a helping hand to any citizens in need (helping old ladies across the street, changing tyres on cars, emergency medical assistance and so on)
This worked great, and many other cities have adopted similar schemes, with large armies of networked robots in every city.
Most cities have upgraded over time, keeping on top of the latest trends and innovations. The robots have become steadily more human in appearance, sleek, proud machines with synthetic skin, artificial musculature, realistic appearances.
But these are expensive, and frankly there's a large community of people who find them intimidating and unsettling.
The Boston robots are simpler, all metal and plastics, it's clear what they are and their older aesthetics are regarded with affection by most.

The retro style and unintimidating and friendly robots are much beloved by the people and efforts to modernise have had very little traction. Individual robots are recognised by their mismatched parts and are often given cute nicknames or even dressed up by locals with spray-painted decor, stickers and funny hats.

The hardware of the robots may be old, but the software is hooked to a centralised city-robot management system and they're as smart and capable as any modern robot.

The actual robots themselves are robust products of the time they were built and there's not really any reason to replace them, they're quite capable of looking after themselves and their common components can be cheaply repaired or replaced in any automotive machine-shop.
The numbers of robots are slowly decreasing as they fail and are dismantled by one another for spare parts, but there were over a million originally, and every robot that gets cannibalised for parts keeps half a dozen other robots going for another year. It will be a long time before they need replacing.

Ultimately, the Boston City Robots are doing the job they were intended for and doing it well, even without the city spending much money on them (just a small human oversight team to make sure the robots are kept up to date and under control)



Are the robots really obsolete, or are they a mature design that has gone through several decades of small incremental changes?

Unless you're developing spherical cows in a vacuum (or something built out of nothing, because the previous infrastructure is gone), the thing with industrial design and development is that you're constrained by legacy, logistical chains and compatibility with existing infrastructure. And until the paradigms really definitely shift and the existing design is not really fit for it's intended purpose, they do not change.

If you want real-world examples, look at military weapon developments.

The M1 Abrams is still there and it was designed in 1972! That's about 50 years ago. And it's still one of the most modern tanks. That's because paradigms haven't shifted in a way that would make modifying the design a bit and retrofitting the existing vehicles cheaper than producing a new one. And it is modular enough that making such changes is easy.

The same with the Kalashnikov, the M16, and so on. Hell the Browning M2 machine gun is still a great gun and has been in active duty with the U.S. army since 1921 - THAT'S 100 YEARS of active military service! Originally it was developed with a water-cooled jacket and was a bit different, but there are 100 years of streamlining and incremental development in the design.

If the design is modular and easily updated, there is no need to replace it, just incrementally modernize.


For the same reason you have a lot of older cars and trucks around

For sure, new cars are shinier. But they cost money, and many people can't afford that kind of expense. If you've got an old car and it still works, and you can still get the parts to repair it, there's no reason to junk it just because it's not the shiniest one around any more.

Where people haven't previously had much car ownership and have had this opened up relatively recently (e.g. China), it's very noticeable that a higher proportion of the cars are newer because there simply isn't the depth of ownership history.

I would question why Japan or any other major industrial nation would be considered "behind" though. Advances like computing, health and robotics are by no means limited to a single nation; and even if a few companies in one nation pioneer the work, the rest of the world can buy this as soon as it becomes commercially available. The idea that the US could be "ahead" of industrialised countries like Europe, Japan or Taiwan is basically a non-starter. It holds true somewhat for China, India and Africa where a fair proportion of the country are still subsistence farmers; and perhaps for countries such as Russia which have export embargoes for political reasons; but not for any countries with significant trade links.

By the way, watch the film Robots for an anthropomorphic take on planned obsolescence. :)


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