Archives For robotics

fish kung fu

Robots and software are steadily displacing more and more workers. We’ve known this for the last decade as automation picked up the pace and entire professions are facing obsolescence with the relentless march of the machines. But surely, there are safe, creative careers no robot would ever be able to do. Say for example, cooking. Can a machine write an original cookbook and create a step-by-step guide for another robot to perfectly replicate the recipe every time on demand? Oh, it can. Well, damn. There go line cooks at some point in the foreseeable future. Really, can any mass market job not somehow dealing with making, modifying, and maintaining our machines and software be safe from automation? Well, sadly, the answer to that question seems to be a pretty clear and resounding “no,” as we’ve started hooking up our robots to the cloud to finally free them of the computational limits that held them back from their full potential. But what does this mean for us? Do we have to build a new post-industrial society?

Over the last century or so, we’ve gotten used to a factory work model. We report to the office, the factory floor, or a work site, spend a certain amount of hours doing the job, go home, then get up in the morning and do it all over again, day after day, year after year. We based virtually all of Western society on this work cycle. Now that an end to this is in sight, we don’t know how we’re going to deal with it. Not everybody can be an artisan or an artist, and not everyone can perform a task so specialized that building robots to do it instead would be too expensive, time consuming, and cost ineffective. What happens when robots build every house and where dirt cheap RFID tags on products and cloud-based payment systems made cashiers unnecessary, and smart kiosks and shelf-stocking robots have replaced the last retail odd job?

As a professional techie, I’m writing this from a rather privileged position. Jobs like mine really can’t really go away since they’re responsible for the smarter software and hardware. There’s been a rumor about software that can write software and robots that can build other robots for years, and while we actually do have all this technology already, a steady expert hand is still a necessity, and always will be since making these things is more of an art than a science. I can also see plenty of high end businesses and professions where human to human relationships are essential holding out just fine. But my concern is best summarized as First World nations turning into country-sized versions of San Francisco, a post-industrial times city which doesn’t know how to adapt to a post-industrial future. Massive income inequalities, insanely priced and seldom available housing, and a culture that encourages class-based self-segregation.

The only ways I see out of this dire future is either unrolling a wider social safety net (a political no-no that would never survive conservative fury), or making education cost almost nothing to retrain workers on the fly (a political win-win that never gets funded). We don’t really have very much time to debate this and do nothing. This painful adjustment has been underway for more than five years now and we’ve sitting on our hands letting it happen. It’s definitely very acute on the coasts, especially here on the West Coast, but its been making a mess out of factories and suburbs of the Midwest and the South. When robots are writing cookbooks and making lobster bisque that even competition-winning chefs praise as superior to their own creations, its time to tackle this problem instead of just talking about how we’re going to talk about a solution.

[ illustration by Andre Kutscherauer ]

lunar outpost

One of the recent ideas in space exploration tries to avoid landing astronauts on other worlds, risking exposure to dangerous radiation and alien weather. Instead, the plan would be to build a wonderful long-term space habitat equipped with a small army of robots to be deployed to Mars and other exotic destinations, and then remotely piloted by the astronauts from orbit. And quite honestly, the astronauts are only there because the lag in communication between the robots and mission control is just too large. Raduce it to 500 milliseconds and below, and you’ve got an almost perfect telepresence on the surface of another moon or planet while the humans float or slowly rotate in the relative safety of their craft hundreds if not thousands of miles above. And as the plan to get NASA back to exploring space with humans, this idea could be field-tested on the dark side of the Moon. The basic plan is to send a capsule with a small crew of astronauts to the stable L2 orbital point to hover over the Moon and operate a small swarm of robots.

What would these robots do? Some would explore craters with particularly interesting geology. Others would set up a radio telescope to peer far into the cosmos. Others still might even test a few concepts that could help steer their mechanical successors on Mars. But hold on a second, since we’re doing this with robots and robots could be much more autonomous in the future, why even bother sending humans ask critics like those in the cited arXiv blog post? Why not just give rovers, flyers, and other bots the lead and watch their progress from Earth? It would cost much less than human missions and be much safer for all those involved. However, let’s keep in mind that making our space-faring robots smarter is no easy feat and there are a lot of fundamental problems with handing over a complex cognitive task like exploring alien worlds to robots with little human oversight. We can learn to abandon a $500 million mission when it breaks down or crashes into an alien desert; in fact, we understand that it’s an ever-present risk. But more sophisticated and intelligent machines will not be so easy to write off as being lost to space.

These robots will have to be larger, more expensive, and thus more difficult to abandon should something go wrong. They’ll have to accommodate bigger power sources and more powerful and better shielded circuitry, huge investments that would make Curiosity’s hefty price tag look like a real bargain. No economies of scale will offset this anytime soon because this technology is still being developed and having even a few dozen copies built will not offset the R&D costs. And in even the best case scenario, they’ll have the mental capacity of a family pet, enough to do a bit of intelligent poking around, but certainly not enough to solve daunting challenges on worlds we still don’t know very well. Humans will be needed to make complex decisions and they may need to make them quickly, so planning multi-month rescue projects and last minute patches from the safety and seclusion of Earth may not always be an option. Likewise, why take months to fix an issue when a human nearby could tackle it in a few days if not just hours or minutes?

Don’t we want to actually explore the cosmos? If so, why hold up the exploration schedule and refuse to invest in the technology that allows humans and machines to partner up and explore a new world together? We can develop explorers, builders, and maintenance bots working under human direction, then use them on Earth for our own projects like infrastructure updates, a new skyscraper, and even medicine. Is all this expensive and really ambitious? Absolutely. But if we invest in science and technology, the payoffs from successful projects are always worth it since they create new industries, new jobs, new ideas, and allow us to do new things. Without the use of new types of integrated circuitry on Apollo to prove their capability and ruggedness, it’s more than likely a safe bet that your smartphone and tablets. as well as your laptops. would’ve arrived decades later than they did, if they would’ve even been developed at all. And without ambitious, outlandish, and challenging projects, how do we advance as a civilization? Sure, we could just launch a few robots to the Moon to do their jobs. But how will we learn to effectively partner with them to explore deep space and worlds still waiting for us to study them?

punk model

As odd as it may have sounded, I’ve said multiple times that the web did not change human sexuality nearly as much as we’re often told and much of the novelty is really just well forgotten antiquity ranging from Roman orgies to the personal and highly publicized perversions of Marquis de Sade. And aside from making it easier to find and talk to our fellow perverts, not a whole lot has changed about our sexual appetites, despite threats of runaway pornography addicts from angry conservatives and alarms about men quickly becoming more sexually deviant from borderline misandrists. In fact, I’ll even bet you that transhumanist sexual fantasies of computer-assisted mind-melding is an extension of 1960s New Ageisms in which quantum vibrations along with large quantities of drugs and meditation have been substituted with machine-neuron interfaces and very big leaps in some very hazy new areas of computer science. But all this said, I’ll grant you something unique when it comes to the fantasies of futurists known as AFSR or a fetish for humaniod robots, often custom built to turn one’s wildest fantasies into reality and trained to be the perfect object of arousal. And according to new literature looking at human and computer interaction, that market could be very lucrative for a lot of people…

One of the more recent summations of how comes from Ian Yeoman and Michelle Mars’ scenario for a robot brothel that would substitute advanced versions of Real Dolls we have today for flesh and blood women, a scenario that could put a real dent in the amount of human trafficking, misery, and woe that’s inflicted on many sex workers shuttled around the world to staff illegal establishments ran by organized crime groups. No need to torture a human and subject her to countless risks when one can just buy a robot and sanitize it after every use, then simply pay for the maintenance and amortized depreciation. And the manufacturers would certainly make plenty of male models too because contrary to popular opinion, women do pay for sex to ensure they’ll get the experience they want and you will be hard pressed to find be a more certain return on their investment than a robot. Now you could still imagine an illegal industry trading in real humans for added kink, but when a much safer, legal, and human option is within easy reach, it would more likely become a niche market. Try to outlaw robotic call girls and boys and you’d have to bring a case which would put any sex toy under threat of a swift illegalization and create an uproar from voters. As for the robots themselves, they’re just doing what they will be programmed to do and nothing you can do or say will hurt them since they’ll lack real emotions.

Not for long though, says David Levy in his 2007 book which declares that with enough advancement in AI, a whole string of human-robot relationships and even marriages will take off. From a psychological standpoint, his thesis is sound. There are numerous people out there who crave attention from other humans but simply don’t know how to get it, using Real Dolls and products like them as not only sexual but emotional surrogates which actually serves to make them even more befuddled by the seeming irrationality of who they sometimes call "organic partners," creating a cycle of co-dependence on their synthetic substitutes. Add some AI that will make those machines more animated, give them perceived moods and ideas, and voila! Why even look for a bothersome, unpredictable, hormonally driven organic partner when a controllable synthetic one is right here and could be fine tuned to be exactly what you’d like? And if you spend years taking care of this machine, why not somehow commemorate the bond just like the organics do? Well, that’s where we enter the legal realm’s difficulties for this scenario. You won’t be able to marry a robot for the same reason you can’t marry toasters or cell phones. Even AI-enabled machines are not entities with free will that can give their consent. If you write a boyfriend or girlfriend routine, of course the robot will consent to whatever you want. It’s in the code.

Also, what about the courts’ idea of whether the human can legitimately even consider marrying or being in an emotional relationship with a robot? It would be one thing if humans didn’t seem to show a preference for the company of other humans, but we do. And as we’ve seen, those who may be the most likely to treat a robot as we would treat a significant other could well be substituting human contact. Would a judge consider someone who finds himself — because let’s be honest, it’s usually males who experience this — unable to relate to girls or women around him and turns to inanimate objects for emotional and sexual gratification, as mentally fit to have a legal relationship with any entity other than another person? On the other side of the argument, I could see activists making the claim that we can’t force someone to conform to whatever the social custom is at the time because that’s discriminatory, and argue that a sufficiently engaging AI should have personhood and be allowed to give consent for things like marriage. But these are not going to be easy arguments to make and if there ever are official human-robot marriages or a big explosion in human-robot relationships, expect there to be a lot of acrimony about it in the media. There won’t be smooth transitions and any incident in which human users of sex bots get injured or an AI goes haywire will be agonizingly dissected during the debates.

For all their endurance and toughness, our vaunted Martian rovers suffer from a major handicap that makes a typical mission far less effective than we want it to be. In all their time on Mars, Spirit and Opportunity covered less than 20 miles combined. What’s the current record for the longest distance covered in one day? Several hundred meters. You can cover that in ten minutes at a leisurely pace. Granted, you’re on Earth and have two feet that were selected by evolution for optimal locomotion while the rovers are on Mars and have to be driven by remote control, with every rock, fissure, crevice, and sand trap in their way analyzed and accounted in prior to a move command being issued since getting a rover stuck hundreds of millions of miles away is a serious problem. But isn’t there anything we could do to make the robots smarter? Can we make them more proactive when they land so far away we can’t control them in real time? Well, we could make them smarter but that will cost you, both in expense and resources since they’ll have to think and keep on thinking while they work…

Technically, we could do what a lot of cyberneticists do and design artificial neural networks for our rovers and probes, treating the various sensors as input neurons and the motors as output neurons. We simulate all the environments virtually and train them using backpropagation. Then, when encountering certain combinations of sensory readings, these artificial neurons transmit the signals to the motors and the machine does what it should do in that situation. If we can interrupt ongoing processes to monitor new stimuli, we could even allow them to cope with unexpected dangers. Let’s say we have a work mode and an alert mode. The work mode is endowed with the ability to pursue objects of interest, the alert mode looks out for stimuli indicating that there may be something harmful coming. So when the work mode finds a rock to drill, another simultaneous thread opens and the alert mode starts scanning the environment. Should the tire slip or the wind pick up, the alerts go out to the rover to stop and reevaluate its options. Sounds doable, right? And it is. But unfortunately, there’s a catch and that catch is the energy that will be required to run all this processing and manifest its results.

Brainpower is expensive from an energy standpoint. There’s a reason why our brain eats up a fifth of our total energy budget; its processes are very intensive and they continue non-stop. Any intelligent machine will have to deal with a very similar trade-off and allocate enough memory and energy to interact with its environment in the absence of human instruction. That means either less energy for everything else, or that the rover will now have to come with a bigger energy source. The aforementioned MER rovers generated only 140W at the peak of their operational capacity to power hardware using 20 MHz CPU and 128 MB of RAM. With this puny energy budget, forget about running anything that takes a little processing oomph or supports multithreading. With a no-frills operating system and a lot of very creative programming, one could imagine running a robust artificial neural network on devices comparable to early-generation smartphones, something with a 200 MHz CPU and somewhere around 256 MB of RAM. To run something like that nonstop can easily soak up a lot of the energy generated by a Mars rover, and when you’re on the same energy budget as a household light bulb, this kind of constant, ongoing, intensive power consumption quickly becomes a very, very big deal.

Hold on though, you might object, why do we need a beefier CPU? Can’t we just link multiple small ones for a boost in processing capacity? Or, come to think of it, why bother with processing capacity at all? Well, since a rover has certain calculations and checks it constantly needs to make, you need to provide time for them to do what they need to do. Likewise, you need to keep processing data from your sensors to feed the neural net in the background and handle the actual calculations from it. Detecting threats in real time with what would be a state of the art system in the 1980s seems like a tall order, especially if you expect your rover to actually react to them rather than plow onwards as the alarms go off in its robotic head, resigned to its fate, whatever it may be. On top of that, just trying to run something like an artificial neural network while performing other functions requires an overhead to keep the computations separate, much less actually having the neural net command the rest of the rover. Of course there could be something I’m missing here and there’s a way to run an artificial neural network with such a light footprint that it could be maintained on a much leaner system than I outlined, but it seems very unlikely that if bare bones systems like those used for today’s rovers could be made to run a complex cognitive routine and act on its decisions, someone wouldn’t already be doing just that.

Drone patrols are nothing new. By now, they’re fairly humdrum stuff come to think of it. But what about a drone patrol on an alien world, one that could potentially last for decades and bring us a constant stream of data on everything we wanted to know about the world in question? Well, that’s the basic idea behind the new AVIATR proposal, which sees a small, nimble drone flying across Titan with a pair of nuclear batteries that provide an ongoing boost for its propeller. Since the moon has just one seventh of the Earth’s gravity and provides three times the air density, a seemingly hard to control, somewhat flimsy drone here would become an endurance athlete in the skies of Saturn’s largest satellite. Soaring between two and nine miles above the surface, it will be able to study the shores of methane and ethane lakes, explore impact craters, image the polar regions for further study, and monitor the weather in such detail that we could consider making weather forecasts for the alien moon. And since it’s airborne, it would do its exploration far faster than any remote controlled rover.

AVIATR isn’t the first concept drone for space exploration. In fact it has a predecessor intended to scream over the surface of Mars, the ARES. While the creators of ARES had a very similar idea, their propellant was rocket fuel and as soon as this supply was used up, the drone would’ve landed to become a stationary laboratory. It seems like a rather short-lived mission because there’s only so much rocket fuel one can store in a relatively small drone. But the nuclear batteries to be employed by AVIATR would work around the issue of storing your propellant and thus limiting your drones’ range. If anything, scaling up those batteries and putting them into a larger, more powerful drone headed for Mars may be worth considering, though again, there are limitations in this scenario since a Martian drone would be subject to a third of the Earth’s gravity rather than a seventh, and have to navigate through very thin air. A plain propeller may not be up to the job of keeping it aloft, though I can see quadcopter designs having some potential merit. Ideally, it would be great if we could come up with what could be a standardized design for flying through alien atmospheres, sending drones to whatever moon just so happens to interest us enough to be worth a closer look with some high precision instruments.

But why would we want to do that rather than customize each drone for its mission, playing to the strengths of each alien environment? For one, that would allow us to mass produce these drones and send them quickly, shaving off many years of development and testing time, casting a wider exploratory net over the solar system and its most interesting worlds. Yes, maybe each drone is not perfect for its mission, but it could collect data needed to justify further exploitation and make measurements one can’t make from orbits or flybys. Why can’t we use an advance scout to help us better target extensive scientific missions while collecting data we would not ordinarily have without actually sending some sort of probe? After all, we sent probes to just have a look at different objects of interest all the time. The second advantage of mass produced extraterrestrial drones is the ability to significantly cut costs for curiosity-driven exploration. Combined with SpaceX’s ambitious plans for a fully reusable rocket, we could consider scientific study of solar system objects to consist of picking a target of interest, reaching for the next available rocket, loading it with the next available drone, and launching it with just a few months notice. Even without a reusable rocket, not having to build each drone from scratch should already save hundreds of millions of dollars for a mission. Hey, if we’ll have to boldly go on a budget, why not boldly go with an economical fleet of drones built for speed and efficiency?

See: Barnes, J., et al. (2011). AVIATR — Aerial Vehicle for In-situ Airborne Titan Reconnaissance Experimental Astronomy DOI: 10.1007/s10686-011-9275-9

There’s money to be made from other people’s misery. A good example of this is the repossession industry, a currently thriving line of business due to the skyrocketing defaults in the wake of the recession. And according to the upcoming dystopian flick Repo Men, the near future is looking even better for those who repossess the unpaid wares of their clients. When people facing death from organ failure or in need of a new eye, or arm buy artificial organs on credit and can’t afford to keep up with the payments after their surgeries, they might just get a visit from a repo man who’ll take the machines inside their bodies back. How? Well, let’s just say that a very sharp set of scalpels is involved. Nothing personal, it’s just their job. So, still want that robotic liver or what?

First and foremost, I have to ask what kind of government would allow corporations to send what amounts to a team of professional hit men to cut out people’s organs after they miss a few monthly payments. Yes, I know, that’s the whole point of the antihero-doing-something-morally-questionable-has-an-epiphany-and-fights-the- system tale, but those only work when the stories are either close to real events or seem highly plausible. The notion of legally killing people for not being able to pay their bills and recycling their used mechanical organs is just too excessive to meet that criterion. It’s one thing to explore the dark side of today’s societies with a film that’s already built on a fantastical or surreal premise. We can go along with that. But a setup we can imagine being outlawed in the blink of an eye is in the cinematic uncanny valley territory where films lose their potential punch. Instead of truly considering the implications of the world being presented to us, we just brush it off as a relatively typical action flick based on a classic storyline.

The second big problem that jumped out at me when looking at the film posters and the viral site promoting the artificial organs of The Union Corporation, the fictional stronghold of the movie’s villains, were the prices for the robotic hearts, livers, kidneys and eyes. A heart for $975,000? Kidneys at $1,048,000 a pair? A liver for some $756,000? Bionic arms starting at $375,000? Either people are being sold the very first prototypes that were custom built for them with handcrafted, never before used machinery, or natural donors are no longer an option for any patient. Even buying organs on a black market would cost less than a tenth of the eye-popping price tags to which we’re treated in Repo Men. True, having artificial organs that work as well as the real thing would mean there would be no need to wait for a suitable donor heart. Depending on the materials used for the machine, you could even minimize the risks of severe foreign-body rejection and with a new generation of power supplies for internal medical devices, they may even have a long working life. But for decades to come, they would be a bridge between lethal organ failure and finding a suitable donor.

Still, let’s stay with the idea of perfectly working artificial organs for just a moment since they are possible and there’s a lot of research and development happening in this field. However, the stratospheric prices of the film would mean that none of the resulting devices would ever be suitable for mass market use. In reality, with the application of economies of scale, we should expect the prices of mass produced artificial organs to drop to several tens of thousands of dollars. Today’s most expensive and sophisticated prototype of an artificial heart costs $192,000 while less ambitious devices run between $70,000 and $100,000 according to the numbers floating around news sites. The supposedly safe, efficient and effective artificial organs made by the thousand in vast industrial labs are bound to cost far less than that, just like computers today are a lot cheaper when the now ubiquitous technology was in its infancy. Yes, the implantation could still run into six digits, but since it’s covered by insurance companies, the patient would only be on the hook for a part of the bill, even in the worst case scenario. And come to think of it, wouldn’t insurance companies of the future also try to cover proven and reliable artificial organs, thus lowering the out of pocket costs even further?

So it seems that Repo Men managed to not only create a totally implausible set of laws for our future, but also made major mistakes when it comes to robotics, medicine, healthcare and business. It’s very difficult to take morality tales seriously when you know full well that everything happening as the story unfolds simply wouldn’t happen and a potentially terrifying allegory for what could happen if creditors are given far too much leeway to collect their debts is reduced to just another action flick based on a rather shaky premise.

New Scientist just interviewed robotics expert Noel Sharkey who presents a very realistic opinion on why AI is way more problematic to create than many tech evangelists predict and explains how programming robots to respond to a situation the way we would doesn’t actually bring us closer to actual intelligence. When we’re dealing with the world of theoretical computer science, it’s becoming harder and harder to ignore the growing numbers of starry eyed dreamers who believe that machines are about to get so fast and powerful that huge computer networks capable of sentient thought are just a few decades away. What Sharkey does here is step in to do something that will be very unpopular but extremely necessary; injecting a dose of reality into some of these lofty theories making headline after headline in popular science and news media pieces.

sentient machine

While organizations convene to talk about human/robot relations and make it their stated goal to create calm and peaceful relationships between us and futuristic machines somehow endowed with sentient thought so we can prevent The Matrix from becoming humanity’s future, Sharkey shines a light on the fact that when we’re dealing with AI, we’re barking up the wrong tree and our fears of robot takeovers are more of a cultural meme rather than a realistic concern.

Are machines capable of intelligence?
If we are talking intelligence in the animal sense, from the developments to date, I would have to say no. For me AI is a field of outstanding engineering achievements that helps us to model living systems but not replace them. It is the person who designs the algorithms and programs the machine who is intelligent, not the machine itself.

So why are predictions about robots taking over the world so common?
There has always been fear of new technologies based on people’s difficulties in understanding rapid developments. I love science fiction and find it inspirational, but I treat it as fiction. [Machines] do not have a will or a desire, so why would they “want” to take over? Isaac Asimov said that when he started writing about robots, the idea that robots were going to take over the world was the only story in town. Nobody wants to hear otherwise. I used to find when newspaper reporters called me and I said I didn’t believe [that] AI or robots would take over the world, they would say thank you very much, hang up and never report my comments.

Yes, I readily admit that we have the same opinion on the implementation of creating AI software, as well as how computing power relates to intelligence and share the same concerns about potentially fatal glitches in military robots, as well as doubts about machine takeovers of humanity, but just because our work lead us to the same conclusions doesn’t mean that these points aren’t valid. Machinery is machinery. It’s not some sort of living object. It’s metal, plastic and silicon. The only thing it can do is transmit electrical pulses the way we tell it to and I for one can’t understand why over the last few months the media has been inundated with all sorts of bizarre reports from committees and organizations wandering into pointless futurology.

[ illustration by Neil Blevins, story tip by Dr. Ian O’Neill ]