Friday, August 15, 2003
Two approaches to computers – cyberspace vs. robots
The media is carrying more news days about the DARPA Grand Challenge – a one million prize to the first group that can design a robot that navigates on its own between LA and Las Vegas. This is a very interesting effort by DARPA (which was responsible for the Internet), as well as pretty wacky failures.
However, it’s worth pointing out that this response is belated – robots in Asia (even China and Russia these days) are more advanced in one way: their ability to navigate in “human” environments. In fact, there has never been a robot in the US which demonstrates the confident walking and stair-climbing of Honda’s Asimo.
So the DARPA effort can be seen as an attempt to get US robotics “moving” relative to Asia. The US appears to have a huge mental block against robotics. Part of this is our “terminator” fears which as another poster pointed out, are not shared with Asia. The other part is a rejection of robotics by the computer/Internet world.
Here in the US, robotics is simply not taken seriously by the computer industry. It was fascinating to watch the US media respond last April to the ever more advanced robots debuting at Japan’s Robodex 2003. Articles in Silicon Valley Times assured their readers that robotics was “still many years off.” Articles on Slashdot lampooned robots, made fun of their appearance, made jokes insisted that Hollywood had already covered the issue. Several posters I saw there declared that robots were useless until they can “bring them a beer.” The usual groups considered the philosophical implications of humanlike robots – ignoring the fact that a much simpler robot with the intelligence of an iguana might have a major impact on our society. There’s little difference here from someone debating the emotions of elves. Another poster said that autonomous robots were un-interesting compared to a remote-controlled, Battlebot-style device.
I suspect these groups subconsciously feel robotics as a direct threat to their industries. After all, most Microsoft (or even Linux) code-slingers could not write software in a “robotic” way – making a robot work is very hard and requires a different mindset than creating an operating system. This means our geeks have little experience designing software that tries to interact with our world – forcing the computer to enter our world on our terms. Instead, they’re experts at building virtual worlds in cyberspace which humans must learn to enter into on the computer’s terms.
I suspect that the more hacker-like programmers on Slashdot feel the threat acutely: their importance in society will fade if we shift from cyberspace to robotics as our computing paradigm. Hence, the jokes and lampooning.
This distinction is profound. Cyberspace is a machine-generated world with fixed rules that often seem arbitrary. If the machine makes the rules, as we see in cyberspace, computers remain hard to use. We must reprogram ourselves to use their latest features. This feeds the ego of the industry – you consumers must learn special incantations to have the machine grant yer every wish. Ease of use is sacrificed to cool concept, and design is technology-centered rather than customer/user centered. People who don’t like it just haven’t “progressed” enough to see the future.
If this seems harsh, consider this: While I sit in front of my PC, it has *no idea* that I am here.
As an example of tech-driven design under the cyberspace model, consider the ever-smaller array of buttons on digital cameras. I consider digital cameras a frontier outpost of cyberspace. Their designers insist that we must adapt to their buttons to get all their cool features, like the ever-expanding menus in Microsoft Office. This in turn implies that their camera design inhabits a world of machine “coolness” that we must learn to enter in order to be modern. The technology ends up in charge.
In contrast, if we demand that machines enter our word, the machines are truly our servants rather than masters. This is the defintion I use for “robot” – a machine which acts in our world, rather than creating a virtual world for us to enter. Forcing the machine to share our environment makes it less alien and more understandable. A robot designed for human environments (e.g. one that can use the stairs) inhabits a world of human “coolness” that it must master to be accepted. As the robot becomes more complex it becomes easier to understand and use, since it is adapting to the world we have already adapted to. What’s not to like?
While Silicon Valley frets, other parts of the country are waking up to robots – possibly, they have less to lose. My fave example is Pittsburgh – home of CMU (biggest robotics group in the country) and recently re-christened “Roboburgh” by the city. The plan is to build a technology corridor with robotics companies as the glamor kids attracting other companies. Imagine doing this in Redmond, or La Jolla. Could be that the rise of robotics will result in the East US regainings status relative to the West.
Considering that more people are leaving California than arriving these days, this might not be too much of a long shot.
– posted by Pete @ 11:35 AM
Thursday, August 14, 2003
Why it still wiggles
What’s the tip-off to a machine in control? Uncontrolled vibration. If you’ve ever seen an animatronic critter at a theme park you know what I mean. When the mechanical pirate, chipmunk, etc., moves its arm, its head wiggles back and forth. A sudden move causes vibrations throughout the entire body. It’s clear that this thing is really not in control of itself.
A similar problem appears with many mobile robots. As their wheels go over small bumps, the upper parts shake in a way we associate with dead, inaminate things. In a sense, this is true – compared to a living organism, most of a robot is currently dead, internet material. Only a small part is computing or using energy – “alive.”
In contrast, every part of a living organism is typically dynamic, with the exception of hair, nails, or exoskeletons. If an animal walks, even the parts not walking adjust in synchrony. You don’t see any vibration of the head, arms, etc. during a walk. This is because every part of the organism participates in the walk, instead of a few localized components found in standard robots.
Future robots that jump will behave similarly. It won’t require that the robot “think” about all its parts. Instead, there will be lots of sensors and lots of local computing right next to them. Combine them with simple reflexes and each part will independently react to jouncings, and damp them into smooth overall motion. Why bother? Ask why animals do this. Clearly, there is an advantage to smoothed motion without un-used parts jumping around. It wouldn’t be selected by evolution if it wasn’t important.
Roboticists who want to get their devices accepted take note: damp the vibration in a reactive, “living” way and your robot will seem far more alive – and more easily accepted. Otherwise, it seems like a shakey machine that is mostly dead or out of control.
– posted by Pete @ 9:40 PM
Good and bad dragons: why Asia isn’t afraid of robots
I got a very interesting reply to a robot posting on the Urban Survival (http://www.urbansurvival.com
) website. I reproduce it below:
good dragon, bad dragon
Thu Aug 14 16:28:29 2003
“The best way to express the differences between our culture and asian culture is, the old medieval bad guy, the dragon. Our history is full of stories of knights battling dragons, and it was really believed that dragons are these malevolent, non-human looking creatures. You could always tell too, from looking at old illustrations too, because bad guys were always non-human in appearance. If any animal or creature or protective spirit was good, it was anthropomorphacized (sp) as much as possible. ”
“Contrast that with the Asian dragon. If anything, they seem to go out of their way to make their dragons look not only less human, but even less like any earthbound lizard. And dragons are good guys, these sinuous, scales, big-clawed, big-toothes, rolling-eyed creatures are considered the ultimate in benevolence, the kind of being you’d be most fortunate in trusting the baby with, or inviting home to dinner. A UFO nut could have a lot of fun with this, ‘proving’ by this that the Asian world must have been helped out through some awful calamity by some truly awful looking dragon-y alien race.”
“I grew up straddling both worlds, Caucasian but mostly grew up here in Hawaii and immersed in Asian culture. I grew up reading about knights going off to kill awful damsel-eating dragons, and also eating candy that came in a box with a dragon on it, and loving dragon dances – my dad even had a BIG one at our house one year, it was great.”
“Bugs are another big difference, ‘Western’ culture considers bugs to be *really* icky, Asian culture considers them pets at times, food, cut little playmates for kids, at times nuisences (sp) but not The Enemy they way they’re thought of in the west. And bugs are very alien looking, they’re really little robots which shows Nature tried out building robots first before getting to us. Ever notice how all those robots in Japanese comics look half-man half-bug?”
This is an interesting idea – the Japanese (and possibly other Asian cultures) don’t think robots are friendly – they just aren’t afraid of creatures not like themselves. In contrast, Western culture sees the inhuman as bad, and the inhuman posing as human as even worse. There’s less space for different, complimentary creatures to ourselves.