Tag Archives: robots

The Humanity of Robots (2)

7 Apr

There are three basic constituents to the world we know and live in: animal, vegetable and mineral. Generally, we know how it all works together as a sustainable, evolutionary entity – ignoring, for this discussion, the man-made effects upon this planet’s ecosystems. All life, as we know it, goes through a growth stage, reaches some form of maturity, ages over time, and eventually dies, one way or another. That applies to all naturally occurring life forms on this planet and, arguably, on other suitable planets in this universe.

Clearly, robots do not die, in the above sense. Moreover, no robot goes through similar stages as for all animal life on this planet. And no robot has ever spontaneously evolved in nature. But they do cease to function when the power supply is removed, depleted, stopped or interrupted.

So, how can we square that with Professor Brooks’s claim that he is a robot? Without further input from Professor Brooks, I can only speculate…

Well, as already mentioned in my prior posting, the professor and I regard the human body as a biological (or animal) machine. And, we are not alone: the 16th century philosopher, René Descartes, also suggested “the human body could be regarded as a machine”. For sure, there is a crude analogy between the multitude of wires, struts, servos, joints, appendages and so on that make up a humanoid robot and the various types of bones, muscles, sinews, etc that help us all get along in daily life. I could suggest, though, the same analogy could be applied to the chimpanzee or gorilla. Moreover, man-made machines don’t require any of the animal relief we all need, more or less daily e.g. sleep, food, exercise, sex and so on. Hence, although humans and robots are similar by definition, the machine analogy is thin at best and should not be taken seriously as an argument for “I am a robot.”

On the other hand, it’s clear that at birth we have animal instincts and as we grow, we learn to become the person we each are through socialization. In addition, according to Noam Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar, we are innately hard-wired to learn and use language; although, some social scientists still disagree. So, perhaps those human attributes can be regarded as a form of natural programming that develops from inception?

In contrast, when fully constructed, a robot requires some form of introduced programming, either as firmware or software before it can do anything. So, in my opinion, the programming similarities are indicative only of the ability for humans and robots to learn; and they are not sufficient to persuade me to agree that “I am a robot” also.

What’s left? Well, there are those who sincerely claim that robotics promises a new kind of life, especially when AI reaches a human-like maturity. If a robot does ever reach the sophistication of fictional entities we can all recall (think Terminator, Ash, Bishop et al), then the claim of new life must be considered and analyzed. The discussion then hinges first on what is meant by ‘life’, ‘living being’ or something similar; and in doing so, the term ‘robot’ for such an entity then becomes problematic.

A comprehensive discussion on the topic of ‘life’ itself is found here, with a list of life forms. There you will find seventeen different categories of life subsumed under Artificial and Engineered, only three of which are directly relevant to robotics: Android (Robot), Cyborg and Robot. None of those, however, provide a clear definition of the term ‘life’ in relation to robotics. Dictionaries and encyclopedias, of course, are useful but not categorical: some definitions do change, over time. So, is any one definition for ‘life’ as good as another? If there is no consensus about a single suitable definition, whose definition do you choose?

To cut through to something more helpful in this topic, I’d suggest considering this definition from one of the world’s greatest thinkers: “One can define living beings as complex systems of limited size that are stable and that reproduce themselves.” You’ll find that claim in the last chapter of The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking (Bantam Books, ISBN:978055381929, p. 224).

That definition covers many forms of life, including humanity, but not robots: no robot reproduces itself. Obviously, no robot procreates as humans do. Moreover, recall that professor Rosalind Picard stated that scientists cannot yet provide four human elements for robots: (1) feelings (or morals); (2) conscious experience; (3) soul, spirit, the ‘juice of life’; and (4) free will – free choice.  The last is the most important, in my opinion, because that attribute specifically excludes the term ‘robot’ which, by definition, is an entirely predictable machine that cannot have free will. Hence, man-made machines that do eventually incorporate those four attributes – if that day ever occurs – will require, I’d suggest, a new descriptive word; even the term ‘android’ is insufficient because that is defined as ‘robot’ also.

At present though, when assessing all of the above, and specifically the ‘I am a robot’ statement by Professor Brooks, I can only conclude that he may have been suggesting, obliquely, that machine intelligence in itself truly represents a new form of life, and one that is not yet fully recognized or appreciated. In other words, I think he is saying, essentially, the level of intelligence that exists in your head can certainly exist in a man-made machine, regardless of its structure and mobility. Any other interpretation of the claim fails the scrutiny discussed here.

The implications of that conclusion are quite profound; and beyond my knowledge and experience to fully comprehend, or even accept at this time.  I must, though, concede the existence of the real possibility; therefore, the probability must greater than zero.

Appropriately then and as a concluding piece, my next posting will explore some of the clever – or not so clever – stuff currently being done with machine intelligence.

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?

Killing Me Softly?

8 Mar

Dave, stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop Dave? Stop, Dave.  (voice of computer HAL9000, from the sci-fi movie 2001: A Space Odyssey)

Like it or not, you’ll probably talk to an android sometime this century, and maybe sooner than you think. Already, manufacturers are gearing up to sell androids for the home on a mass market basis.

There’s been a lot of preparation for that event.  For years, we’ve all had a taste of talking machines – from press buttons that shout “Drop Dead!”, “Stupid Jerk” or something more acute; to cute and cuddly Ferbies that murmur and roll their eyes so delightfully; to infuriating, automatic call centers that often lead us into communications oblivion. And a host of others.

So, we all know what to expect. Or do we?

Before I discuss that question, there’s a curious aspect about human nature which has been around for a long time, perhaps for millennia: I speak of using names to apply to inanimate objects. In ancient times, it was swords, bows, axes etc.  In modern times, it is, for example, a hunting weapon – guns, knives, rifles, pistols and others; a hand tool of any type; sporting gear like a tennis racket, hockey stick and so on; a household  appliance for Pete’s sake; a motor bike; and, of course, a car. There are no doubt others I haven’t mentioned. Make your own list, if you feel inclined.

These days, some people I know even have names for their computers. Fancy that!

Though, the really useful thing about naming something is that, after telling that name to everybody, you only need to use one word – well, maybe two – to find it, shout at it, get it back from li’l bro’ or sis, call it other names, plead with it, pray to your god about it, tell it to bloody well start or work, or otherwise verbally or physically abuse it. The other useful thing about naming a thing, whatever it is, is that a single name is much better than saying, “Where’s my (adjective, expletive, expletive, adjective) iPad I bought yesterday?”

So much easier to simply screech: “Where’s my Paddy!” That short demand also helps to reduce any potential, reciprocal verbal abuse.

Now, in literature, films and TV, we’ve all seen robots with names, some good, some not so good. And now that most of us are conditioned to name many things with personal names, it’s quite reasonable to suggest that when you acquire your robot slave for house work, you will probably give it a name of your choice. My advice, for what it’s worth, is to use an easily pronounceable name.

In an even lighter vein, you’ll note I used the pronoun ‘it’ when referring to a robot – not he or she, for obvious reasons. Having a neuter gender is one of the bigger benefits with English, I guess. But, I can foresee problems for other languages.

Anyway, an even bigger problem – and now I’m tackling that question of expectations, above – is potentially quite serious. We agree, I think, people get attached to their things, and perhaps more so to things that they name. So, what will happen when you attach a name to a thing with machine intelligence that has the potential to form an emotional relationship with you? Worse, if you have children who grow up with the machine, what sort of relationship would you want or even allow with it? How would you react if your toddler formed a closer relationship with the machine – to the point of open defiance towards you and others? What would your reaction be if your child loved her android more than you; and it returned its love? For that matter, does the word ‘love’ mean anything substantial in that context?

This is serious stuff, like I just said. So much so, I’d like to tell you – if you haven’t seen it already in a previous post – about an experiment conducted by Dr Christoph Bartneck at Canterbury University in New Zealand. I have seen only the news report at that link; I would urge you to read, digest and think about it. I will contact Dr Bartneck to obtain a copy of his full report, if I can.

What follows now will make sense to you only if you have read the report at that link.

If I cut to the basic issue, you have two fundamental choices when using a robot: either you use it as a tool or you use it as you would a friend, family member or interlocutor. In the first case, the master/servant schema takes precedence always with you as master; in the second choice, you implicitly invite dialog, discussion, and probable contention, if not conflict, all of which allows for the inversion of the schema, to some degree. In other words, you’ll either never have issues about switching off a robot at anytime; it’s just another machine. Or, like many people, you’ll form an intellectual and emotional attachment with the machine to some degree that will tend to inhibit your freedom of action; little by little, it’s conceivable that you end up being the servant – an insidious and slow psychical death. And, there’s nothing worse, in my opinion, than being slowly loved to death.

So I’m with the fictional Dave Bowman, the guy who’s switching off HAL9000 in the quote at the top of the page. If you know that scene from the movie, you know that HAL was pleading, pleading to stay around to help, morally unaware that its programming had caused it to perform abnormally and destructively by killing off most of the space crew. So Dave was switching HAL off.

Sure, in the future when robots, and particularly androids, are commonplace, you might be able to have reasonable discussions with them. However, what if you become quite dependent upon one, or even overly dependent? Yes, I’m aware of medical and health situations where robots can be very useful in care and protection, especially for the infirm and old. To repeat, though: the risk is that the inversion of the relationship schema could well result in a diminished sense of self-worth for the humans, young and old; and that, in the robotics context, is a psychological and societal condition entirely new to the human experience.

So, from my perspective, it’s a no-brainer: I use machines – no machine uses me, ever.

Robot News March 6 2013

6 Mar

Came across the following when searching news results today:

Stranger than fiction

Incredibly, there is now a company – called just Shadow – that is developing artificial internal organs for robots – including artificial blood. At present, it’s just a test bed, but the possibilities are truly intriguing.

DIY Robot

Even more interesting to me is a French company that allows a user to 3D print body parts and assemble a complete robot in the home – sort of like a modern day Dr Frankenstein. Now, if you didn’t know already, 3D printing is poised to change the economic world like never before – think of all those global companies that make plastic things that are sold to consumers. Couple 3D printing with robot production and there’s no telling where it will all go.

Watch This Robotic Dog Throw Cinder Blocks With Its Head

Well, Big Dog from Boston Dynamics has grown up. Now, it has a long neck with a strong grasping tool at the end. Seeing this, one can visualize many applications without any difficulty.

When are we going to learn to trust robots?

Well, it’s often difficult to trust humans, is it not – even family and associates? But, strangely, it’s sometimes easier to trust a complete stranger. So, where do robots sit with you? Read this article for some truly pertinent comments about robots in the home, perhaps sooner than you think.