Robots That Jump

Robot Bodies Needed Before Robot Minds

Robots That Jump Historical – April 2003

Information & essays related specifically to the development of robots with advanced bodies using legs (rather than wheels), active senses, autonomous operation – in short, real robots. Robots that potentially participate in aerobics classes get special consideration.
Wednesday, April 30, 2003

The Anti-Matrix: Why ‘cyberspace’ is about to decline
I just had an article published over on the Urban Survival website. Despite the title, this subscription-based website considers a mix of cultural, technological, and economic changes that will drive future trends during the next decade or so. A good site for intelligent analysis, particularly if you’re investing.

The article was written in response to an earlier one discussing the absence of the ‘next big thing’ out there – capable of driving a new economic boom like we experienced 1982-2000. In it, I suggested that the problem was that we were caught too strongly in cyberspace notions to see the real ‘next big thing’ – which I called the Anti-Matrix. The following (first part of two) describes where cyberspace is, and more importantly, why it is about to go into decline, and possibly be violently rejected by society.

One of the many forces driving the 1982-2000 boom was computer technology. The steady rise in computer speed paralleled the unique in history rise in stocks. Now that the high-tech bubble has burst, the computer industry (particularly in Silicon Valley) keeps looking for the good days to come back. Various technologies (e.g. wireless) are touted as the thing to bring the industry out of its slump. The computer industry (and by extension, the NASDAQ) still wait for their 1990s vision of computing to bounce back to its glory days – pure nostalgia rather than a plan for the future.

In this context, the article at Urban Survival points out that virtually all the tech industry is wedded to a single idea – cyberspace. The Internet, web, instant messaging, virtual reality, gaming – these are all aspects of cyberspace. The better cyberspace gets the better everything gets. The idea of cyberspace has grown in our culture until we’re willing to believe that the world itself could be a Matrix – a simulation comparable to a game running on our personal computers.

Cyberspace actually has a pretty simple definition. Instead of talking about virtual spaces, consider the relative roles of human and computer. In cyberspace, the computer applies a large set of arbitrary rules to create an interface. People interpret the interface as a world generated by the computer. To experience the world, they have to in some sense enter the computer. More importantly, they have to abide by the rules the computer has created.

So cyberspace describes a situation where the effort is all on our side – not the computer’s side. We can’t break the rules if we want to do anything with the computer. No matter how buggy, self-contradictory, annoying, and just plain stupid a particular implementation of cyberspace is, we have to go along. The computer makes the rules and so isn’t even breaking a sweat.

Another aspect of this is that the computer doesn’t really have to be very sensitive to our world. Operating system kernels are defined prior to writing ‘drivers’ to connect them to hardware. The computer can’t see, hear, or feel in any real way. The little amount of our world getting into the computer is highly pre-processed-discrete keypresses, Ethernet packets, data from cards, drives – it is like food massively pre-chewed and digested. Put it another way: right now I’m typing and the computer know I’m here. It doesn’t need to – all it does is make a virtual world that I have to enter.

Look at the various aspects of cyberspace this way. A cellphone with multiple, complex functions attached to a few tiny buttons is making the rules for entering Voiceworld. A computer program for drawing can have confusing, cryptic menus but we must learn them exactly to get our work done in Graphicworld. The web creates a ‘multimedia’ interface, but access Webworld access to audio and video is patterned with lots of programmer (and now commercial) rules which don’t have anything to do directly with audio and video.

Frankly, I’m amazed that people have managed to learn enough to work their way through cyberspace until now. However, we’ve reached an impasse. Processor speeds climb but the computers don’t improve their performance. Programs get more and more complex, ‘feature’ loaded. Accessing ever more complex media in cyberspace requires learning more and more rules.

Since the computer makes the rules and is unaware of our presence (and by extension, our world), all attempts to make a “user friendly” computer are just another layer of arbitrary, annoying rules in the cyberspace world (think of the ‘help’ that Microsoft’s ‘Clippy’ provided). I submit that there will never be a “user friendly” cyberspace. The concept of cyberspace is to create a world, and we will always have to learn its rules. It will never be as remotely friendly as the everyday world – the only one the human race experienced until 20 or so years ago.

But wait, isn’t our world just another user interface? Doesn’t reality have its own set of rules? How can we even judge cyberspace as less real and worthy than the world we wake up in?

This attitude is the Matrix. The cyberspace vision is now so firmly embedded in our culture that we attempt to draw everything into it. The ‘Matrix’ movies are simply philosophical advocacy for this postion – our reality is really a computer virtual world. The wide acceptance of this idea shows how deeply the concept of cyberspace has permeated our ideas.

But we must remember a few things about cyberspace:

  • It is only about 20 years old
  • It has been driven by the rapid adoption of personal computers
  • It’s history has been one of simple speed increase, not massive conceptual change. The Source bulletin board in 1979 had ‘cyberspace’ as much as a massively multiplayer online game today
  • It was largely invented by head-trippy Boomers who were looking to ‘inner space’
  • Its rise matched the coming of age of a single generation (Gen-X with its “GenY” tail who combined ironic, edgy individualism with an alienated disconnect from society
  • It appeared just as the public perception of the real world was that it was breaking down into anarchy (think of the broken-down worlds of The Road Warrior and Bladerunner
  • It is only one way that computers can be appliedAll these events are the product of a short, 20-year period in cultural history, which has just about played its course.

    The creation of ‘The Matrix’ movies celebrates the ubiquity of the cyberspace vision. It is a monument put up to the cyberspace idea. In a similar sense, The NASDAQ wall in New York celebrates the ubiquity of stocks as measures of economic value and hip-hop mover Russell Simons celebrates its rise to a world youth culture. But remember – all these trends are only about 20 years old. Furthermore, the moment someone begins putting up monuments to an idea or culture, it is a sign that the trend has peaked, and is on its way down.

    Consider these examples:

  • Actual sales of hip-hop music have declined since 2000 – far more than music sales in general. Its lead artists are thirtysomethings (Eminen is on the far side of the big 3-0).
  • During the last months of their 1990s glory, telcoms used what little money they had left to put their names on stadium walls.
  • In the computer world, mass entertainment celebrates the notion that everything can be reduced to cyberspace. This celebration happens just as the growth of Internet use drops to nothing – we’ve been stuck at about Internet use 40% in the US since 2001.Several authors (Strauss & Howe among them) have argued that US history runs in 20-25 year blocks, each one most easily identified by the discovery, the rise, dominance, and decline of a new generation. In the post WWII era, several blocks can be identified: 1944-1963, in which the ‘Silent’ generation came of age, 1964-1981, in which the famous Baby Boom put its stamp on society, and 1982-present, in which Generation X replaced Boomers as the youth generation. The end of each era (think 1964 and early 1980s) was marked by major cultural shifts that reversed previous cultural trends.

    In each era computers were seen differently. In the Silent and early Boom era, computers were godlike, centralized oracle-style beings, most clearly seen in HAL in 2001. Coing of age the Boomers turned this on its head, and applied ‘computer lib’ to bring personal computers to people. Generation X was the pioneer of cyberspace, ranging from early 1980s video arcades to the Matrix movies today.

    According to this timeline, we are on the verge of a new generational breakout, as the “Millennial” generation replaces Gen-X/Y as youth culture. By 2010 the edgy 1990s culture representing the peak of the tech boom will be dead.

    Already, evidence shows that the newest “Millennial” generation (aged 0-21 in 2003) will reverse numerous cultural trends established by Boomers and Xers. It is likely they will reverse computer trends as well. Already, Millennials show less interest in computer careers, the inner workings of computers and cyberspace exploration. Instead of surfing, they tend to use computers for group communication via email, IM, cellphones, and file-sharing technologies. At best, cyberspace for Millennials is a forum for collective conversation, a speaking room, or place to exchange gifts (e.g. MP3s). They’re far less interested in the idea of cyberspace as an alternate reality, or seeing our world as a Matrix-style simulation.

    Millennials are young now, but as they mature, they’ll define the ‘next big thing.’ I suspect it will be robots – the Anti-Matrix and the next big thing. More on why robots are the Anti-Matrix next time.
    – posted by Pete @ 8:54 AM

Monday, April 28, 2003

Missing the point about humanoid robot bodies
A recent article on ABC news (taken from Tech TV) shows the problem with the US media bias — and why they’re missing the rise of real robots. In the article, the Sony SDR and Honda Asimo are described, only to be dismissed. The article notes that the Asimo doesn’t decide to walk up stairs – people send commands for it to do so via wireless connections. Similarly, the lack of commercialization for the Sony SDR is noted.This is a prime example of missing real events due to outmoded ideas of robots. Media articles (including the Tech TV example here) spend some times musing on the philosophical implications of robots, and also repeatedly remind us that any use is a long way off. This completely misses the massive advances in Asia. Compared to 10 years ago (and in the US), there are now good and getting better robot bodies with advanced senses, reliability, and even style. This is a huge change from the “trash cans on wheels” past – but the media isn’t noting it. In fact, the ABC/Tech TV article trots out old research from MIT on Kismet as if it was comparable to having a humanoid robot walk – it isn’t. At best, it is like apples and oranges. The Kismet project was designed to explore interactivity and primitive, babylike minds in robots. The Asimo and SDR are designed to walk around in natural environments and pick up things. Less mind, more practical.

The problem here is similar to one seen in human evolutionary theory. Prior to the discovery of fossils in Africa, many researchers theorized that the human ancestor had an apelike body and a big brain. This goes along with our Cartesian bias that the mind must come before the body – rife in the US robot community. In contrast, fossils now show us that the human body was defined from the neck down before the brain enlarged. Homo Erectus, with a modest brain size increase, had a body almost identical to ours. They weren’t even stooped-over “cavemen” – in fact, fossils from Africa were tall and relatively slender.

Like evolution, the obsession with the philosophy of robot mind and soul is blinding us to the rise of real robots.
– posted by Pete @ 8:47 PM


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