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Thoughts on robots


Something I read a while back about the future contained the amusing line, “Where are the darn robots already!” This line harkened back to front covers of Popular Mechanics magazines with the “family of the future” flying about in UFO-like private cars and being served by humanoid robots.Robot
That kind of robot future hasn’t happened yet, but we’re getting close.
Computerization, micro-engineering, GPS and the internet are coming together to create things like flying cars (view the Mollar Sky Car here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bOOQiU5GjoM) or cars that drive themselves (view a TED talk about the Google car here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bp9KBrH8H04&list=PL285EC3A87819DDC8).
Anthropomorphic robots are almost ready for prime time. The video below shows a variety of interesting human-like robots that are astonishing in their dexterity and capabilities. In this short video, Honda’s “Asimo” robot walks, climbs stairs, and moves with such fluidity one is tempted to imagine there’s a person inside. If you haven’t viewed robot videos recently, you’re in for a treat!
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N_m56irWKeI
Only a few years ago, the prospect of robots all around us seemed remote. I recall, however, being impressed by tours of several auto plants in the 1990s, including the GM plant in Oshawa, where I saw first-hand many assembly line jobs performed by high-tech robots; these increased productivity and eliminated some of the business risk from human employees.
Some of the machines I’ve seen in waste recycling plants are similarly doing work formerly done by people, identifying different materials on a conveyor belt, for instance, then picking them off and sorting them into different bins.
Robot-like devices are appearing in the consumer market. One example is the commercially-available disk-shaped vacuum cleaner that shuttles about and cleans floors while you do other things (including trying not to step on it!). I saw a similar disk-like robot cutting the grass in Walt Disney World, powered by solar panels on its top.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see where this might all be heading.
Moore’s Law predicts that computer microprocessing power doubles every two years (this was later refined to 18 months). In our day-to-day lives we see the result in our smart phones: every year new models are released that are thinner and lighter with greater battery power, and perform more and more complex tasks. My iPhone is itself a kind of personal robot, functioning as my wrist watch and alarm clock, portable TV and internet browser, calculator, email device, calendar, notepad, and camera, to name but a few items. It’s functionality as a phone is almost incidental.
The same trend toward miniaturization combined with increased computing power will push new technologies further into the realm of what was once science fiction. Diagnostic probes launched into our bloodstreams will identify problems, and eventually remedy illnesses or repair damage. The military will launch flying insect-like machines that will spy and transmit information. Today, drone aircraft directed by pilots sitting in front of computer screens in the US midwest target and destroy enemies around the globe. Star Wars-type robot soldiers are likely not far away.
Indeed, one would expect military applications of robot technology to first be adapted for industrial and commercial uses, then hit the consumer market.
Environmental service companies will no doubt use robots for dangerous situations, sending them into polluted waters or lands, or into the smoke and toxic vapors of HazMat fires, explosions and other emergencies. They’ll also be useful for routine, repetitive tasks like water sampling and analysis, or the operation of remote oil rigs or ground excavators.
Waste management and recycling companies could find robots useful for lifting and toting waste containers in automated collection systems. They would benefit from savings in lost-time injuries and workers’ compensation. In recycling plants, robots could work on the picking line, pulling and sorting valuable materials from conveyor belts without concern about cuts, injuries or infections. They could work inside organic processing plants and vessels, immune to odors, vapors, allergens and bacteria.
Sci-fi writers have played up the danger from robots, once the “singularity” occurs; that is, the moment when artificial intelligence happens in computers (and, by extension, robots). The Terminator movie series and The Matrix film trilogy typify a whole genre of science fiction that imagines a future after AI occurs when machines build other machines, and eventually control or wipe out mankind.
While this makes for good books and films, it’s more likely that a different future will unfold, that echoes another collaboration from our distant past.
We humans are distinguished from most species in the animal kingdom by our being persistence hunters. As is evidenced by studies of modern-day bushmen in South Africa, we literally ran our prey to exhaustion and then speared it. Most other animals are fight or flight creatures, built for short bursts of speed. Persistence hunting gave us a niche apart from the sprint  predators.
Interestingly, wolves (and by extension dogs) are also persistence hunters. It’s not surprising that during the last Ice Age at some point we made common cause with these animals. It couldn’t have been lost on our ancestors that wolves were chasing the same prey, with similar strategies. Once wolves were domesticated as the first hunting dogs, a powerful partnership ensued.
We were the “dog masters” — using dogs’ greater sense of smell and hearing to augment our own advantages of intelligence, strategization and adaptability. Other species (including other hominids) may have endured dogs or homo sapiens on their own: but the combination of both was formidable!
I believe the partnership of human beings and AI robots will develop similarly. Human minds and computer minds will together solve some of the most challenging concepts in science. A unified theory of physics or a cure for cancer may be at hand.
One of the most interesting possibilities in this regard is already underway in space exploration. It’s with robots and probes that we’ve begun to explore the solar system and the surface of Mars. While some politicians call for a manned space trip to the red planet, I think this is a poor use of resources (especially as we’d have to bring the people back). Sending ever more sophisticated robots deeper into space seems more like the natural extension of the pattern via which, long ago, humans and dogs expanded around the Earth.
If you’re interested in seeing a very plausible dramatization of this last possibility, I highly recommend the excellent computer animated documentary Alien Planet, which you can watch for free on YouTube. To my mind this program illustrates just where robots could take us in the not too distant future.
Here’s the link (and below that, a summary of the plot from YouTube):
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BNLfNe12BKE
The CGI or computer animated drama/documentary takes place on Darwin IV, a planet 6.5 light years from Earth, with two suns and 60 per cent of Earth’s gravity. Having identified Darwin as a world that could support life, Earth sends a pilot mission consisting of the Mothership Von Braun and three probes: Balboa, Da Vinci, and Newton. This robotic fleet is responsible for finding and assessing any life forms on Darwin IV. Initially, the expectation is to find microscopic life, but the probes soon find themselves in the middle of a developed ecosystem teeming with diversity of life of all sizes. The drama on Darwin IV is motivated by real science missions, such as the NASA Origins Program and the NASA / JPL Planet-Finder Mission, as well as the European Space Agency’s Darwin Project. “Alien Planet” is a cosmic expedition along side Stephen Hawking, Michio Kaku, Jack Horner, Craig Venter, and George Lucas…


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