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Herb Palmer: Promises and perils in an age of robots

Perhaps it's time to look ahead to the beginning of the 22nd century, when the average American will rise at 6 a.m. every day, don sports togs and prepare his trained robot to take care of the day's workload at the office or shop while he or she ...

Perhaps it's time to look ahead to the beginning of the 22nd century, when the average American will rise at 6 a.m. every day, don sports togs and prepare his trained robot to take care of the day's workload at the office or shop while he or she spends the morning at the gym and pool and the afternoon with pals on the golf course.
Gasp! ... are you nuts? What kind of a world are you talking about?
Don't be so old-fashioned! We are close to making human-like robots that will take care of most of our duties in the workplace while we take the day off and enjoy life with friends.
The millennium was still a half century ahead when Isaac Asimov penned his first sci-fi classic, "I Robot." He conjured up robots as having shiny metal bodies and glossy red eyes; moving figures that looked like people, thought like people, and most importantly of all, devoted themselves to taking care of the human race.
The idea is not so far-fetched. Robots are at work right now in the real world exploring distant planets, assisting with precision surgery and locating land mines in war zones. The toy market is just months away from a massive invasion by robotic cats, dogs and mice on toy store shelves. Steven Spielberg will set the stage for the fall shopping frenzy this summer when his movie "A.I." does for super smart, super sensitive robots what his "Jurassic Park" did for the dinosaur.
The dream of such a humanoid mechanical machine that becomes a human sidekick goes back to the early movie days of Charlie Chaplin and other celluloid screen stars, but it took one of the biggest industrial firms in the world 10 years and millions of dollars to build a machine that could walk gracefully. The new humanoids are not just moving bodies -- they are also sophisticated sensing machines packed with cameras, microphones and human-like movements.
Researchers are increasingly looking at children for the answers to how to teach them.
Kids are essentially learning machines, and while no one is quite sure how they do it, there's clearly a lot of initiation, interaction and plenty of room for trial and error. If robots are ever going to have human intelligence, perhaps they'll have to do it the way babies do. Stuffing a computer full of facts and equations and real world smarts, like remembering to bring an umbrella if it looks like rain, is not enough. The robot Kismet is programmed to seek sensory stimulation, voices, movements, brightness and color, which attracts and simulates baby talk.
Scientists are also starting to make machines to test theories and notions about how brains work. There are some nice models of how children learn basic social skills, but few ways to test them.
If robots are ever going to live and work with us, they've got to look good, too. Some designers prefer the stylized impersonal look of Robonaut or the sleekly modernized Japanese humanoid SIG. For the more truly social machines, designers have two options. They can go for the disarmingly goofy look of MIT's Kismet, or they can shoot for realism.
"We try to build something that looks enough like a person so that you could treat it like a person and enjoy its company," says a University of Utah professor, whose robotics company makes humanoids look like real life.
Humanoid robotics are now being eyed by corporate giants like Honda and Sony as a coming new industry. They are just like toys now, but the pioneers are serious about developing humanoids to work as office assistants, caretakers for the elderly or even as schoolteachers in kindergarten review classes.
The vision they conjure up is grim. Advances in robotics could lead to a world populated by super robots that would be just like us only smarter, stronger and more efficient. In fact, they could become our worst enemy in a revolutionary battle for survival. However, we are decades away from having to worry about anything more serious than running out of batteries.
( Editor's Note: Material in this column was obtained from a news article entitled "The Age of Robots -- Its Promises and Perils," written by Thomas Hayden in US News and World Report.)
On the lighter side ...
Ole noticed in the paper that Emil Flogstad, the janitor at the bank, had died. So, he called Haugo, the banker, and asked if he, Ole, could take the janitor's place. "Maybe," said the banker. "If we can arrange it with the undertaker."
-- "Ole and Lena Joke Book"

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