Archive | March, 2013

Robot News Roundup-March 31st, 2013

31 Mar

Romance for robots?

It seems a mite premature to me, but this Japanese university at Osaka is suggesting there is a need to manufacture a perfect android (PA) to function as a romantic partner. In this report, the PA is ‘female’ – in looks, that is (whether there is a need for the ‘male’ variety is not disclosed). This is probably a strange idea for many in the West, but as the chief engineer of the project says, “In Japan, we believe that everything has a soul and therefore we don’t hesitate to create human-like robots.”

To be fair to the chief engineer, the reason for such development is, essentially, to “to learn more about the human race.” Still, it takes all kinds to make a world, I guess…

The complete robot – or is it?

 DLR Robotics of Germany is very much in the business of developing full bipedal mobility for robots. So the company’s thrust is aligned, to some extent, with some of the work of Boston Dynamics, famous for Big Dog and Atlas. Although, in the words of the director, Mr Christian Ott, “This is not intended to create a perfect walking robot, but to be a continuous source of new knowledge.” Germans are pretty good at engineering, as we all know, so this is worth watching some more.

Fully robotic self-construction with 4D printing (no, not 3D printing)

 This will knock your sox off, maybe: materials under development at MIT that self-construct (yes, you read that right). Still much in the experimental stage, this report and videos give a tantalizing look at what will be available in the near future. It’s jaw-dropping, cutting edge technology: makes you kind of want to ask, “What will they think of next?” Try this: I just wonder if that technology will, in a century or so, provide the means for robots to self-replicate easily.

That’s a speculative idea, of course; but, it’s not a pleasant thought at all, is it?

Robot News Roundup-March 25th, 2013

25 Mar

Robot-human interaction can help stroke victims

Once more, here is proof that robots will be a great boon for humanity in the medical field. Already, a primitive humanoid robot (HR) is assisting in the rehab of those with stroke related partial paralysis.

Yes, robots can learn language

If you have any doubts that robots can indeed learn language, this will help to resolve the issue. It’s a long, long way to colloquial, conversational English, for sure; but the goal is irresistible, don’t you think?

Another mover and shaker in robotics

I came across this page about Rodney Brooks, MIT professor emeritus, and now Chairman and Chief Technology Officer at Rethink Robotics. There are a number of very informative videos and interviews which provide much background in the long development of robotics. Definitely worth a view or two.

A robot helper in every home?

Right now, only few people are free from the drudge of housework. The future though holds out the promise of robot servants for the masses. The technical challenges are daunting, to say the least; but, as one of the project engineers says, “The robots are coming. Are we ready?”

Revising The Three Laws of Robotics?

Here’s a piece from 2009 with a discussion on Asimov’s laws of robotics. Two engineers at Ohio State U have proposed revisions that place more responsibility on humans when interacting with robots. I think it’s on the ball.

Gaining Humanity’s Trust

21 Mar

When meeting a new acquaintance, we like to know who we’re dealing with, right? For millennia, humanity has generally had little difficulty in that regard.

That’s all set to change, however.

In the process of watching and commenting upon the effects of the continuing robot revolution, I’ve been researching an aspect that appears to be inexorable: the push by some manufacturers to construct a Perfect Android (PA). For the record, my position is unequivocal: no robot should ever be made in humanity’s real image.

Fortunately, I’ve not found one PA ready for mass marketing yet; although, there are a number of Humanoid Robots (HR) either now on the market, or will be later in 2013. With few exceptions, I have no qualms with the use and integration of HR within society; they, like the humble computer, should prove to be of positive benefit to society as a whole; although, as with any technological change, there are always unforeseen consequences.  When they happen – and they will – one fixes the fixable, dumps the dreck and moves on.

Constructing and marketing HR is a big job. The task for PA manufacturers, however, is much bigger, more complex and definitely more expensive. Hence, given what I’ve seen so far (and what you can read about already at this blog), I don’t expect to see any PA on the market soon. But I’m confident that such a machine will be doable by mid-century (even so, I still don’t want to see that machine manufactured).

So, what’s so bad about any PA? Let me count the reasons…

First, a PA is a man-made machine masquerading as a real human. If it is a perfect image, you cannot distinguish it from a real human. In other words, it’s a con job. Who likes being conned?

Second, because a PA is a machine, composed of various metals, it is more durable than humans and capable of physically out-performing most, if not all humanity. Such a PA then is definitely stronger than humanity in many ways and thus moves into being a super con job.

Third, one of the goals within robotics is to develop human-like artificial intelligence (AI). AI, in and of itself, is a positive step because such a robot – be it in a mobile computer box or in a humanoid shape – would be able to solve problems more quickly than most humans, depending upon the elegance of the AI software. There is still a long way to go, however. (In fact, producing a robot with AI equivalent to or better than humanity’s is the biggest challenge in robotics.) Nevertheless, a PA with the best AI installed would then become a superior con job.

Quite simply, humanity doesn’t need that kind of triple whammy.

Granted, those three potential situations are just that: potential. But there is nothing to stop a manufacturer from producing a HR with similar physical and AI qualities as a PA – apart from appearance. Indeed, that is more likely to be the case, fortunately; because my research has already shown that the very idea of PA has caused much debate and concern already. And that’s a good outcome because any HR is designed to be always visibly non-human; think Asimo, C3P0, Robbie, Nestor etc.

Some will disagree, no doubt, about the need for some form of control. However, I would question the motivations of those who would deliberately seek to manufacture machines that, by design and appearance, will con unsuspecting, unaware humans.

Looking forward to mid-century and beyond, however, I think none of the foregoing will prevent some manufacturer developing a PA, eventually. Where there’s money involved, there are always those wanting to profit, regardless of consequences for humanity and society. Hence what’s needed now, or very soon, is a process to make sure any PA can be identified easily for what it is categorically: non-human.

Let me suggest a few ideas:

  • Every PA must be programmed to introduce itself as robot (e.g. Hi, I’m Jack, and I’m a robot) in the first instance whenever it meets a new human. To cater for those humans with hearing problems, every PA must also show a clearly visible label with the word ROBOT (in the appropriate language of location), followed by a number, name or combination of both; OR
  • The external temperature of every PA must be maintained at a temperature of 10C (50F), a bit more than half the normal temperature of humans. Hence, when touching a PA, the robot’s relative coldness will signify its robotics underpinnings. Moreover, if the cooling fails thus allowing temperature to rise, the programming must immobilize the machine; OR
  • When asked by any human, vocally or with text (e.g. Are you robot?), a PA must admit its origin. Failure to admit that truth will result in programmed immobility immediately; OR
  • Every PA must be dressed in clothes that clearly identify its robotic origins. This rule could be merged with any one of the above rules.

All of the above can apply to HR also, but not all are necessary for those machines, for obvious reasons. To allow for all contingencies, though, some combination of those ideas must be included into all robotic operating systems. Moreover, once programmed, the software must be locked in and rendered impenetrable to all viral and hacking attacks – no easy task, granted; but crucial for marketing success and reduced risk of looming legal issues.

Right now, those many legal and moral issues surrounding the whole robotics revolution are under debate. Technology always moves quickly, though resolution of legal and moral issues often tends to lag. Sure, we have already the Three Laws of Robotics which are generally accepted across the robotics industry as working guidelines for robot behavior vis-à-vis humanity’s welfare.

But humanity needs to know that all PA and HR are easily identifiable, one way or another, and with behaviors consistent with that need. We humans have necessarily developed means of mutual identification and acceptable behaviors over many years; it’s thus common sense to program all robots in a similarly appropriate fashion. Hence, I’d suggest a formal adoption of at least one or more of the ideas expressed above within the framework for all laws governing the manufacture and use of robots.

We’ve reached a point of no return with robotics. Society cannot function properly without trust and confidence in the machines produced and used. And when considering the history of the mobility revolution when the automobile was introduced, followed by the emergence of industrial automation and its effects, this third revolution in robotics will arguably completely surpass the trans-formative effects of the previous two combined, as it explodes globally.

We’d better be ready for it. Soon.

Robot News Roundup March 18th, 2013

18 Mar

Robots: Tomorrow’s technology is still tomorrow

Here’s an interesting and timely account from one robotics manufacturer, Willow Garage – hardly a name one would associate with robotics engineering. However, it’s been in business since 2006 and has so far produced about fifty robots, all of them large, slow moving and with limited capabilities. Most of them are now with academic or research institutions in USA, Japan and Europe.

Significantly, the programming for the PR1 and PR2 robots is contained in the company’s Robot Operating System, or ROS which is still “the most widely used open-source robotics software platform.” The core message to take away is that “a robot with human capabilities” is still very much in the future.

Japan’s Robot Renaissance (Fukushima’s Silver Lining)

It’s nice to know that robots have increasingly positive benefits for humanity. Read here how robots from iRobot in USA helped the recovery process at the Fukushima disaster of 2011.

The irony, though, is that Japan is a leader in industrial robots and humanoid exceptions like Asimo; nowhere in Japan was there a ready-made “practical and effective exploration and rescue” robotic machine. Looks like, though, that glaring lack will be changed – and probably quite swiftly.

Are Droids Taking Our Jobs?

Jobs are a pervasive issue these days and will stay that way for much of this century, in my opinion. In short, though, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’ to that question, but a qualified yes. Read here what Andrew McAfee, MIT professor, has to say to support that claim.

Robot News Roundup March 14th, 2013

14 Mar

Festo’s Extraordinary Robots That Mimic Biology II: Bionic Learning Network

Under water, on land or in the air, the robotics company Festo is producing amazing robotic machines to go anywhere, it seems. Of particular interest to me is the engineering behind the mimicking of human muscles. And, it’s just going to get better.

Army of the Future: Russian combat Robots

US military forces have been using robotics in war for years, in Iraq and Aghanistan. So, have a look to see what the Russians are doing to catch up. Might seem quite basic now, but the Russians are good at innovation. There’ll be more to come, no doubt.

World’s Top3 Humanoid Robots – Asimo vs HPR-4 vs NAO!

If you haven’t seen Asimo before, it’s worth a look. Sure, it’s specialized and suited for relatively banal tasks, but here’s the point: the engineering and software behind it could be adapted quite easily. I’d not seen the other two before, but Nao, from Aldebaran Robotics, is due for mass marketing this year. It’s a toy, of course – but what a toy!  So, I’m sure it will sell well.


Ignore the hype in this video, and just note the fluidity of movement in this over-sized machine. Then, think ahead 20 or 30 years and picture what is likely to be at that time. It could be quite scary. And, hmmm, note also Titan’s minder in the background, keeping it under control.