Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Rise of the Robots

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There are lots of things these days for us to be worried about: the economy, the environment, the Plague Formerly Known as Swine Flu, whether Paula Abdul leaving "American Idol" means she'll have more time to inflict herself on us via other media -- the list goes on and on. So I thought I'd give you one more thing to lose sleep over.

I'm talking, of course, about robots.

I've been seeing a lot lately about great leaps forward in robotics. Maybe I've read too many books or seen too many cheesy movies, but the things I see when science fact catches up with science fiction tend to fill me with dread. And since I love to share, I'd like to share some of that dread with you.

Some of the advances come from people studying the nature of intelligence by attempting to create AI (artificial intelligence). And let me tell you, that research has resulted in one of the most bizarre things I've ever seen on a TV or computer monitor: the robot baby.

The CB2, developed in Japan, is a little over 3 feet tall, and has "optical, auditory and tactile sensors." It has 51 compressed-air-driven "actuators" inside its body that help it move. It also has gray skin and big eyes, and it reacts to its environment by blinking and altering its facial expressions. It coos. It tries to cuddle. It is creepy beyond my ability to describe.

The nature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has spurred an interest in (and lots of funding for) machines that can go in harm's way and thus save humans from having to do the same. An excellent idea, to be sure. But no one yet has suggested strapping guns on a robot and sending it off after the bad guys, Terminator style. The key word there is "yet."

One military-funded robot project is called "Big Dog." It's a four-legged hauler designed to carry gear and supplies over terrain that's too rough for wheeled vehicles. The hard part, it seems, is getting the legs to sync up right. Well, with the right software and enough computing power, the folks at Boston Dynamics have licked the problem, but the result is unsettling to watch.

Imagine a mechanical mule with no head that moves in a weird, insectlike gait while making a high-pitched buzzing sound like a weed whacker. I think what makes the thing so eerie is that it looks so alive, especially when you watch it do something like struggle to its "feet" after sliding on ice.

Other robotics researchers are turning aside from the idea of bigger 'bots in favor of smaller, faster machines that can divide jobs like reconnaissance or searching a building for terrorists among a large number of smaller, cheaper, expendable units. I'm talking about a swarm. A swarm of tiny robots. And yes, they do look almost exactly like spiders. Freaking out yet?

Sorry, folks, but you ain't heard nothing yet. Because they're working on a robot right now that can forage for its own fuel. And that fuel could be -- you. A company called Robotic Technology Inc. is working on an autonomous mechanoid that's "able to perform long-range, long-endurance missions without the need for manual or conventional re-fueling."

How does it manage this? Well, the robot, according to an RTO press release, can "find, ingest, and extract energy from biomass in the environment (and other organically based energy sources)."

Oh, sure, the company assures us that the metal beastie seeks only to "create usable green power from plentiful renewable plant matter." But as any meat-eater knows, there's a lot more bounce to the ounce in protein. Why do you think cows move so slow and wolves move so fast? And then there's the thing's name: The Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot, or, EATR for short.

So, put it all together and think about this: swarms of buzzing tiny robot babies that feed on organic material.

Pleasant dreams ...


Celine said...

*giggle* Oh, my. I can't wait to see what kind of letters you get about this one!

Fran said...

Have you seen the old movie "Runaway" with Tom Selleck and Gene Simmons?