The Real McCoy

5 Mar

This week, I’ve extended my reading into two companies that appear to be leaders in the development of androids and related technology: Hanson Robotics and Boston Dynamics.

Hanson Robotics, in a nutshell, eventually wants to produce androids that look like real humans. One of the key features of their robots is the synthetic skin called Frubber, a patented product that is truly impressive. For some views about that product, CEO David Hanson and the company, I picked up two articles online that are pertinent:

‘You, Robot’: Personal Robots For The Masses

and

Humanoid Robots Put Best Faces Forward .

Generally, David Hanson is man dedicated to bringing androids to the broad market to assist humanity’s efforts to make the world a better place. That’s a laudable goal. On the other hand, he sees no insurmountable problems with the concept of androids that look like real humans.

In contrast, while Hanson Robotics is a leader in human-like characteristics for androids, Boston Dynamics appears to concentrate on quadrupedal and bipedal locomotion, with the view to producing autonomous four-legged “pack animals” and two-legged androids. The former, called Big Dog, can outrun a normal human.

In videos at the company website, the sure-footed ability of Big Dog is nothing short of astounding, especially on ice, even at this stage of development. One of the bipeds, Petman, shows good balance on a treadmill but there is no information yet on how it fares on rough terrain, on ice, through water etc. Perhaps the field testing for the other biped, Atlas, later this year (2013) will include such aspects. The military application of such robots is obvious; but, there are other, equally obvious possibilities.

Companies such as those are the now and unavoidable future. Over time, I’ll research all such companies, globally. In the process, it’s with some satisfaction that I’ve discovered others who are just as concerned as I am about the rise of the machines – if you’ll pardon the hyperbole – and particularly the development of perfect androids. The above links provide further information in that regard.

Moreover, if you’ve been following this blog, then you know I’m not prejudiced towards the idea of androids per se. Though I think it’s crucial that humanity maintains its distance from robots when it comes to physical appearance: in this context, this matter truly is a case of Us and Them.

Not in competition, but in a mutually beneficial association and with the understanding and knowledge that real humans always assume the dominant role in the human-android nexus. To do otherwise is to court disaster in many forms at some future date. However, I don’t mean that androids should be programmed to regard humanity as infallible; obviously, we are not.

The crucial point within my argument is this: all robot software includes built-in rules, according to the functions each machine performs. For example, a future robot fire-fighter would have sets of rules governing its use of equipment to put out fires, rescue humans, treat wounded/burn victims and so on. A robot doctor would have even more complex sets of rules. Androids acting as police, should that ever come to pass (and I hope not), would necessitate even more complexity.

Regardless of the application specific software, though, all developers and manufacturers must ensure that all machines – android or otherwise – must be programmed to conform to the Three Laws of Robotics. That should not present any problem to any relevant company – other than the difficulty of getting the software right. And that’s a prodigious issue for developers because they would know only too well the difficulty of developing perfect, bug-free software.

For example, in all of my forty-seven years dealing with computers and programs, I’ve not encountered any complex program that’s bug free. The more complex, the more risk of bugs: that’s the reality, that’s the challenge, that’s the danger.

In the final analysis, though, it’s obviously in the company’s interest to get the software/firmware right: any product sold to the consumer must be certified as safe to use, in theory and practice. And that’s the catch: otherwise the consumer will go to the competition – arguably the worst fate for any company and as it should be, evermore.

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