In This Month's T3: Rise Of The Robots

What happened to the utopian dream of a life of leisure for us humans, paid for with the toil of uncomplaining automatons? It could be that it’s just been delayed… In this month's issue, T3 magazine looks at the present and future of robotics, hails the dawn of post-human intelligence and looks forward to the era when robots will fight our wars, heal our sick, take our jobs, steal our girlfriends and shoot us dead. Hang on a minute, suddenly this doesn’t sound so good…

We all watched The Jetsons as kids. Greek mythology gave us Haephestus’s metal automatons. da Vinci sketched a moving suit of armour. de Vaucanson wowed 18th-century eurotrash with his animatronic, crapping duck. Clearly, humanity’s desire to build robots is deeply ingrained.

Whether motivated by a desire to make creations in our own image – becoming God, in effect – or by a desire to not do the washing up, intelligent robots are something we have long hungered for.

Honda’s ASIMO (Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility) is today’s most advanced humanoid robot. It can run, climb stairs and recognise faces. It may look like a child in a spacesuit and at a cool $1.1 million it may be beyond the average household budget, but it takes an impressively fluid step forward, and the latest advances in its capabilities are astounding.

Shown an object and told its name, Asimo is able to recognise it when he encounters it again. If shown a similar object he can also recognise and identify it. In this way, for example, he is able to assess whether an object is a chair or a table by its general characteristics. This is a decision that ASIMO makes on his own, essentially making a judgement based on what he has learnt.

Funded by the European Commission as part of a five-year, $12.1 million programme, iCub is the most advanced robot in Europe. The aim is to teach iCub new skills over time just as one would teach a human child, and already iCub can crawl and play the drums. Unusually the project is open source, allowing a degree of inter-disciplinary collaboration that many have argued is essential to accelerate development. This approach allows experts in fields such as robotics and cognitive neuroscience to work together, hopefully leading to faster results.

ASIMO and iCub are the harbingers of the Age of the Robot. But what can we expect from the age of post-human intelligence?

Robotic killers

Let’s start by addressing a minor, nagging concern that many people have about robots: are they liable to rise up and kill us all? It’s a fair question; one of the most active areas of research is in military robotics and the results can be seen on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Robots are increasingly used in the most hazardous situations such as clearing mines, exploring hostile terrain and defusing explosive devices. Today there are thousands on active service including iRobot’s popular Packbot and the Talon produced by Foster-Miller. Robust yet portable and agile, these are Robot Wars-esque, caterpillar-tracked machines.

Aerial surveillance robots such as the Aeryon Scout, are now not much bigger than birds. Over the next decade, flying or crawling spybots the size of insects are a real possibility. Meanwhile, military ground robots are taking on a more humanoid form for superior agility. Boston Dynamics’ Petman is a bipedal robot that takes much of its technology from the BigDog all-terrain robotic mule. Bucknell University is also developing a walking robot, the tBot, for the US military. As it took its first steps in 2009, Congressman Christopher Carney observed that it was, “Exactly the kind of thing we need. We’re going to be fighting a lot of urban war for which this application is well-suited.”

The next step is for these warbots to fight without being remotely controlled by a human.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)’s Urban Challenge in 2007 pitched self-driving vehicles against each other over a 60-mile course for a $US2 million prize. The fastest unmanned car home, in just over four hours, belonged to Tartan Racing, a joint venture between Carnegie Mellon University and GM.

For a droid to navigate the battlefield on its own is a big step, but a much bigger one is to become aware enough to identify and destroy targets. This raises questions both operational – how does your Killdozer 3000 know what to shoot at, and can it do so with accuracy? – and ethical – could a robot commit war crimes? Ed Godere, head of the technology solutions group at defence tech and security giant Qinetiq, says, “We always want a soldier in the loop, making those life-and-death decisions 
that a robot could never make.”

South Korea is planning the deployment of Samsung’s SGR-A1 along the border with North Korea, a move that would take the debate to the next level. The SGR-A1 sentry machine gun can identify targets at a range of 4km and if you’ve forgotten the password to show your friendly intent, you could be in serious trouble.

Robotic lifesavers

Advances in military-funded research need 
not be regarded in solely apocalyptic terms. Many of the hazardous environments of the battlefield are encountered in civilian emergencies too. The Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) at Texas A&M University is a leading light. Its robots have been deployed in response to mudslides, mine collapses, hurricanes and the 2001 World Trade Centre attack. The knowledge gained shows huge potential for the near future but as director Dr Robin Murphy observes following the recent Haiti earthquake, “Good science isn’t sufficient to help a disaster like Haiti. We need industry to 
cheaply manufacture the devices, agencies and NGOs to accelerate adoption.”

The military has also helped pioneer the use of medical robots, a clearly beneficial area.

The da Vinci Surgical System manufactured by Intuitive Surgical has been used since 2000 
to simplify complex operations such as heart bypass surgery. Instead of the need to gain 
access through the rib cage via a single large incision, the surgeon can operate via three or four small incisions, each no more than a few centimetres in length, via a joystick. This less invasive technique causes the patient less pain, bleeding and trauma, which means a speedier recovery. It could lead to completely scar-free surgery within a decade.

Even more excitingly, Duke University has designed a prototype medibot that can remove shrapnel using ultrasound without any human supervision. All it needs do now is to develop a bedside manner as good as, say, the average ward doctor – not difficult, come to think of it.

Beyond that? The prototype ARES robot consists of 15 separate modules that the patient would actually swallow, before they self-assemble inside the patient’s body. It’s a little 
like the bacteria-sized “medical submarine” in the ludicrous-at-the-time movie Fantastic Voyage.

“Many mini and micro-robots have designs that emulate the crawling and wriggling motion of worms and insects, or the swimming motion of bacteria,” says Dr Arianna Menciassi of the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in Italy where ARES was developed.

Robots you can swallow already play an important role in diagnosis. The Sayaka camera capsule, developed by RF System in Japan has proved particularly good at plumbing the depths of the small intestine. Over the next few years the aim is to introduce additional functionality to the capsule including ultrasound, laser and biopsy capabilities. Also in development at Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna is a new robotic “spider pill” which has tiny legs and, unlike capsule pills, can be controlled wirelessly and directed by the medical team.

Robotic angels

Advances in robot technology have similarly momentous implications for nursing too. Aethon’s TUG is already ferrying medicines 
and supplies in over 100 hospitals in the US. Since 2007 the EU-funded iWard Project has been seeking to develop “nursebots” who “swarm” through hospitals, communicating with each other to optimise and co-ordinate their actions, from cleaning spills to transporting bed linen.

Given a choice, most patients are 
still likely to prefer human empathy and a friendly smile over something that resembles 
a sentient filing cabinet but, the argument 
goes, freeing up the nurse’s time is the best way to achieve this.

The area we may see robots make the greatest impact is in the long-term care of the elderly. 
A robotic assistant could enable people to maintain full, independent lives even after 
their own physical capabilities begin to diminish. With the number of pensioners worldwide anticipated to increase by two billion over the next 40 years this is potentially an enormous market. In Japan, whose ageing population is often seen as a true demographic timebomb, Machine Industry Memorial Foundation estimates that robots could save the country 
$US21.2 billion a year in healthcare costs.

RIBA (Robot for Interactive Body Assistance) resembles an oversized teddy bear and has paddle-like arms that can lift a 61kg person in and out of bed or a wheelchair. RIBA’s designers at RIKEN-TRI have achieved this by means of a new tactile guidance system.

At Apita Seikadai supermarket in Kyoto, trials continue on Robovie II, a robotic shopping assistant from the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute (ATR). Within decades, its descendents could be doing pensioners’ shopping or even running their households.

Robotic workers

Our working lives will be heavily affected by robots in the coming decades. According to 
the International Federation of Robotics, the average price of robots has fallen by up to 75 
per cent when compared to labour costs since 1990. As this trend continues many of us will find ourselves replaced by faster, more accurate and, above all, cheaper mechanical employees. 
If we have an office to go to, we may well 
get there on a bus that no longer needs the human driver that currently accounts for 60 
per cent of the running costs.

In the automotive industry, robot arms 
now account for as much as 50 per cent of labour. Japan leads the way with approximately half of the world’s 800,000 industrial robots. 
As with the automated geriatric nurses mentioned above, it’s more pressing in a country where the average age of the population just keeps on spiralling up, leaving an ever smaller number of workers to support an inexorably growing number of pensioners.

Agriculture will be the next area to benefit. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) already has an experimental greenhouse of cherry tomatoes managed by small robots. The robots check each plant via sensors and then use their vision systems to decide if a tomato is ripe enough to pick with their mechanical arms. Such developments could soon revolutionise labour-intensive fruit cultivation, which is increasingly unviable in developed economies.

While we may benefit indirectly from such tireless effort on the production line, robots 
are finally beginning to have direct benefits in the home, too. iRobot recently announced that it’s sold five million of its Roomba vacuum cleaning robots since its 2002 launch. “We have seen a widespread acceptance of this technology,” says CEO Colin Angle. “This further fuels our drive to innovate and provide solutions that make a difference in people’s lives.” Similar technology enables products such as the Robomow and Mowbot to cut the lawn for you now, as well.

Roomba and Robomow may not be the kind of socially interactive robots we’ve been culturally conditioned to expect by books and films but they save us having to do some tedious domestic chores and for that we should be grateful.

Robotic friends

Despite the practical advances in robotics, 
we still dream of possessing robots we can 
relate to on a social level. Georgia Tech researchers Ja-Young Sung and Rebecca Grinter have studied how some people interact with their Roomba vacuum cleaner, giving it a 
name; a personality: “Some people dress it up,” says Grinter. “In fact, enough people do this that there’s a company that makes a business out of selling costumes for Roomba. The Washington Post has reported on how even battle-hardened US soldiers have formed close bonds with their Packbot and Talon robots.

It seems that there could be a robot-shaped hole in our lives. According to the International Federation of Robotics, of the 4.4 million domestic robots sold in 2009, 2.8 million 
were bought purely for entertainment and leisure purposes. So-called “mental commitment robots” – droids you interact with in a social rather than industrial way – are serious business and undoubtedly the cutest is PARO. This robot baby seal from Japan responds to petting, expressing its feelings by flapping its tail and blinking its big eyes at its handler. Research in nursing homes and hospitals since 1993 has shown the real therapeutic benefits of interaction with PARO, including reduced stress levels – just as with a flesh-and-blood pet – and greater communication.

Just as with warrior droids that need to traverse battlefields and pick off hostiles but 
not civilians, humanoid social robots pose a 
huge scientific challenge. Their functionality depends on an ability to move, hear, understand and respond to their environment without being preprogrammed to follow a specific sequence 
of actions, yet the level of intuition we humans take for granted is extremely difficult to 
replicate in artificial intelligence. However, 
the likes of Honda Corp’s ASIMO and its European rival the iCub are striding towards it, with each advance bringing us closer to creating artificial life in our own image.

Domo, developed by Aaron Edsinger at MIT, is the first robot that can hug rather than simply grasp. It gets its human touch from elastic actuators in its fingertips which not only feel an object but also assess its touch flexibility.

Over at the University of California’s Machine Perception Laboratory, the Einstein robot has an uncannily lifelike face. Using 31 artificial muscles, it can achieve a wide range of facial expressions that the robot learns by itself, through experimentation. The next step is to get Einstein to use these expressions in a social context outside of the lab.

Perhaps the most lifelike robots are those created by Hiroshi Ishiguro at Osaka University. Ishiguro has created the Geminoid, an unnervingly realistic replica of himself. Using a motion capture computer, the Geminoid mimics its creator’s movements and speech. Ishiguro is not attempting to design a robotic servant or companion; rather he says his research is motivated by a search for deeper understanding, asking, “What is Human? What is consciousness?” He feels at one with his doppelgänger, and revels in blurring the line between what is man and what is man-made.

Robotic future?

Our dependence on robots will doubtless continue to increase, bringing with it a host of benefits but also profound social change. Ubiquitous robot labour could give us the leisurely life promised since the late Industrial Revolution. As Dr J Storrs Hall of the Foresight Nanotech Institute asks, “Why shouldn’t we, the human race as a whole, build machines to do the hard work we need done, and spend our time enjoying the resulting wealth?”

How, though, should we treat robots and what does that say about us as human beings? Will robots one day have the same rights and responsibilities as ourselves?

Science fiction has asked these questions for decades, but as robots become ever more sophisticated and as our interaction with them becomes increasingly close and complex, we may need to find answers sooner than we think.

Domestic robots will be commonplace in the very near future. The South Korean government has pledged to have a robot in every home by 2020. These machines will predominantly be the utilitarian robots that clean the floor, mow the lawn and provide home security, but we will become accustomed to their presence and even bond with them to a degree.

Over the next 15 years, more sophisticated domestic robots will be introduced to carry out a range of simple tasks, particularly for the elderly. As a result, unlike with most technological fields, we may find it is the older generations who are the early adopters.

The growing versatility and intelligence of machines will mean robots increasingly do what is now regarded as skilled human work. As a result, robots will have social and economic implications as profound as the Industrial Revolution. Wealth will become increasingly concentrated in the hands of 21st-century equivalent of mill owners, able to profitably harness the tireless efforts of machines.

The cheap, mass-produced goods and advanced healthcare provided by robots will improve our general standard of living but our job security will be eroded by the tide of technological advancement.

Such a transition will not be smooth. Some humans may demand a curtailing of what roles robots are allowed to have. If this leads to social unrest, we could even see governments deploying “SWATbots” – law enforcement robots originally designed for military use – on the streets.

The physical threat from robots may be far greater than we appreciate. Robots can act unpredictably in unpredictable environments and increased interaction with humans introduces just such conditions. Already governments are beginning to consider how to manage this situation, with the South Korean government even going so far as to create a Robot Ethics Charter. Who should be legally responsible for the actions of robots? How much decision-making autonomy can they safely be given? These are questions we will have to address in our lifetimes.

Soon, our domestic robots will be entertaining and educating us. They may still not be as intelligent or agile as humans, but in some specific tasks they’ll be outdoing us. More advanced models may have unique personalities to which we could form a genuine, sentimental attachment. We might begin to see robots not as mere mechanical objects but as an extension of ourselves and we may start to regard our treatment of them as a statement of our own humanity. We might even see “robot’s lib” marches and robot/human romance. Now there’s a few things The Jetsons never envisaged.

Words by Jim Whyte of T3 Magazine. T3 Magazine is on sale now at Woolworths, Coles Express, 7-Eleven and all good newsagents.

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