Personal robots have been a long time coming. After R2-D2 and C-3PO whirred and clicked their way into the limelight in the first “Star Wars” movie 27 years ago, the mass entertainment world blossomed with their mechanical descendants. “Droids” and “bots,” some humanoid, some not, became as familiar a part of the science-fiction landscape as imaginary aliens and spaceships.
They are still cinematic staples — check out this year’s blockbuster “I, Robot,” with its mechanized servants and nannies — but it was hardly a surprise when they started showing up in the real world, as well. From the ocean floor to hospital operating rooms to the craters of Mars, robots are helping human beings work; and in the homes of the affluent — those who can afford Sony’s cute electronic dog “Aibo,” for instance — they are even helping us play.
The extent of this steady robotic advance into the human realm was underlined by several recent snippets of news. Last month, the U.S. company iRobot announced plans to work with tractor manufacturer John Deere to develop a robot vehicle for combat. The new vehicle will ideally be able to drive and guide itself after an initial run with a human driver, a company official said.
On a lighter note, Sony’s “corporate ambassador” QRIO — a humanoid robot equipped with cutting-edge artificial intelligence technologies — officially launched the Sony Style store in Kuala Lumpur. (It must be admitted that the whole idea of robot ambassadors is tremendously appealing. They could hardly do less to facilitate global harmony than the human variety has historically done. Or perhaps — a subversive thought — the planet’s entire diplomatic corps has always been a company of robots. That would explain the stiff ambassadorial boilerplate.)
Finally, teams from Japan’s Advanced Institute of Science and Technology and America’s Purdue University have announced the launch recently of an ambitious four-year project to “give humanoid robots the ability to behave and move more like human beings, to have the skill-learning capabilities of humans.”
That last clause brings into focus the corner that robot technology is about to turn. The next generation of robots will not feature machines mindlessly performing pre-programmed tasks. It will — so scientists hope — feature machines that can adapt and learn. As a Purdue researcher explained it last week, humans have the ability to combine basic learned skills, such as pushing, lifting or grasping, to perform a whole new skill, such as opening a door and walking through it carrying heavy bags. The goal is to build robots that can emulate this ability, ushering in an almost bottomlessly useful technology.
As has happened at every step on the road to the robotics revolution, there are those who fear what such developments might portend. It hardly matters that scientists are talking about endowing a robot with the dexterity of a human 6-year-old — or the reflexes of a smart dog. In some people, the Frankenstein complex lurks so deep it is hard to persuade them that there is not something sinister in the rise of the robot helpers.
The debate was reflected in the critical reception of “I, Robot,” the action thriller based on the shaky premise that menacing robot hordes might someday be capable of turning on their human makers. According to chagrined fans of Isaac Asimov, on whose 1950 anthology of stories the movie was loosely based, this scenario does an injustice to Asimov, who viewed robots as potentially useful, and certainly benign, tools.
This is the view that seems to prevail in Japan, which is regarded as a world leader in humanoid robotics. Of all the nations involved in such research, Japan is the most inclined to approach it in a spirit of fun — hence Aibo and QRIO and the other quirky assistants and companions dreamed up here. The United States, by contrast, has invented robotic military vehicles, vacuum cleaners, gardeners and pill dispensers — all thoroughly utilitarian applications. According to some observers, however, there is more common ground between the two approaches than might seem apparent.
The key consideration is: Who is going to use these robots? The answer is obvious — the swollen generation now nearing retirement age. These people are going to need help from wherever they can get it; their children will certainly not be up to the task of providing the needed amount of physical and medical care, as well as companionship, diversion and, yes, fun, in the home, in nursing-care facilities and in hospitals. As the developed world’s populations age, the question of who is going to look after the growing ranks of elderly is no longer purely academic.
The way many researchers see it, robotics technology is nearing the point of genuinely popular usefulness just in time.
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