Robots That Jump

Robot Bodies Needed Before Robot Minds

Robots That Jump – Historical, June 1, 2003

Who tells the truth – movies or reality?
Discussion of robots constantly exposes the amazing gullibility of people with respect to entertainment media. Who hasn’t heard a conversation where some doofus chimes in “omygod! what about THE TERMINATOR!!! WHY ARE THEY BUILDING ROBOTS! DON’T THEY KNOW THAT THE MACHINES WILL GET US?”

For those of you dropped on your head in infancy, the Terminator movies are entertainment. Pure entertainment. They concern the behavior of fantasy robots with magic powers (e.g. time travel) that don’t exist in reality. They are play. Make-believe. They are storytelling. They tell us little or nothing about any future, real world where robots may be commonplace.

The willingness of people to drag up fantasy movie robots as stark, prophetic warning is touching proof of their faith in the truth of movies. Over time, we seem to have forgotten that movies are make-believe. Movies are at best are a high-tech campfire storytelling. Their purpose is to amuse and entertain their audience, and possibly concern deeper, artistic truth — for which the story itself is scaffolding. To entertain, movies will do anything that works. Movie storytellers invent stories, plots, scenes, events that maximize entertainment value rather than reflect the real world. Matchining reality is unimportant if it’s a good story. After all, a security camera tape matches reality far more closely than any film ever will.

Interestingly, nobody expects a person telling a robot story to be a robot engineer. It is not necessary that they understand what robots are and are not to tell their story. Any bozo will do if the story is cool. Huge mistakes can be made. Only the “cool” aspects of robots (e.g. they’re metal and strong) need to be put into the story. The facts don’t have to scan as long as the story if fun.

In the movie industry, entertainment is even more important than traditional storytelling – they have to make lots of money to recover production costs. This means that entertainment must occur, or the creators will be looking on Monster.com for their next job. Puny facts that gets in the way of entertainment will be thrown out immediately.

And there are some “fact” problems for robot movies. For example, nobody knows how to make any mobile machine with the type of sustained power use seen in movie robots. The Terminator would need the output of a city block to do the things it is seen to do. Yet its power supply supposedly lasts 100 years. A nuclear power source wouldn’t be enough. The Terminator can burn in a 2,000 degre fire and its computer chips are fine. Not possible.

Then consider R2D2. The robot’s appearance is fun, but utterly impractical. It is not clear how R2D2 gets up stairs. The big trash-can body is useless for maintenance/repair of a “space fighter.” Why isn’t R2D2 designed more like a real repair robot would have to look? Because he’s fun the way he looks. Entertainment, nothing else.

Likewise, the evil, amoral, no-holds barred behavior of the Terminator robot is pure fantasy, not extension of present robot trends to the future. However, it is entertaining. Having the Terminator rise from a funeral fire serves mythic and storytelling ends. But nobody can imagine how chips and electric motors (you can clearly hear motors whirring when the Terminator moves) could survive a 2,000 degree oil file. It is just impossible. But it is cool to see, just like an elf or a ghost is cool to see.

In spite of our supposed understanding that movies are fakes, people set great store on their supposed “truth.” There is truth in movies – it is artistic truth. The Terminator series is popular partly because of artistic truths. The idea of romance struggling against impending doom (the theme of the first movie), or a struggle for freedom in a world driven by Fate (the theme of the second movie) are artistic truths. But these movies say nothing about the reality of robots.

Proof of this can be seen in the following thought experiment: substitute a “demon from hell” for the Terminator – the stories still work.

Despite their blatant unreality, movies like the Terminator series are seen as a warning against robots.

The most fascinating aspect of this is the assumption of the robot-doomer — preaching as he walks out of the mini-mall theater — is their assumption that what they saw onscreen is true, and the real world of scientists technology, etc is a lie or conspiracy. This idle spouter of the hour (who after all, knows practically nothing about robots) will tell us that the goverment is lying, industry is lying, scientists are doing somethig sneaky, etc. and that they will bring the dark world of evil robots.

But the same mini-mall prophet nevers consider the fact that the entertainment industry just tricked them into parting with their money.

It comes down to this: if you’re sure that everyone is lying, why would you believe a movie producer for god’s sake? They’ve got to be bottom of the barrel. Their business consists of lying day and night!

…..That’s what they doooo!

……That’s all they doooo!

Movie creators are tyring to make money, and they will use every storytelling trick in the book to manipulate those bills out of your wallet. They’ll tell you anything just as long as you pay. After all, it’s just entertainment

But does this sound like people you should trust for higher truth? Does a sleazy Hollywood executive sound like someone you should trust more than anyone else in the world, especially on a difficulty technology question? Why would you believe a movie created by entertainers is telling the truth?

The fact is, that art (when entertainment gets good) is designed to tell us deeper truths. The robots are just a plot device. For example, The Matrix series of movies artistically explore themes of identity, our notion of reality, religious symbolism and other deep ideas that have been around for thousands of years. The machines are just a plot device. The Matrix offers no proof that a machine-generated reality is possible, it assumes it as a given to get at something else. It is not designed to be proof that the particular world related by the story is possible – in fact, the entertainment value of The Matrix is irrelevant whether it can or can’t exist.

Today, the childlike faith in the real-ness of the money-grabbing hype created by the film industry is astonishing. When did people begin confusing the fake world of movies with the real one? When did they begin believing that movie and television executives were honest?

These days, lots of people actually believe that they “voted” Ruben as the American Idol. Forget it. Ruben was choosen months before the final show as the person having the best market potential, combined with features most appealing to the show’s market demographic. The votes are just a plot device designed to attract an audience. Comeon, everyone, it is a game show!. Game shows are rigged to maximize the money advertisers will pay to put their commercials on them. They are created by entertainers who want to maximize entertainment appeal rather than seek universal truth. Why is this hard to see? More importantly, why would people believe that the government lies but that American Idol is true?

You didn’t “vote” for Ruben. The Terminator movies have nothing to do with real robots. There is no law requiring game shows to tell you the truth. There are no laws requiring moviemakers to conform their stories to known laws of physics. There’s no law that says that the TV show producers can’t erase the votes as they come in. In fact, the Ruben “recount” was most likely planned as a way to get extra publicity for the show. That’s entertainment.

There’s also a certain depraved two-faced aspect to the mall-Moses seeing a future full of Terminators and trying to “warn” society of the danger. Consider this idle spouter of the hour as they exit the THX-enhanced theater. Did they go to the movie to objectively explore the robot peril? Nope. They went there because it is cool to see the robots. They wanted to see the Terminator running around and smashing things. They wanted to see steel smash flesh. They enjoyed the movie. The stuff about dangerous robots is just a way to justify their guilty pleasure.

In this light, the mall-Moses warning is a little like a prayer you say before gorging yourself at an all-you-can eat dinner. You say a prayer asking for forgiveness — and throw yourself on the food face. The prayer somehow makes up for your acting like a pig. By saying it you absolve your greed and guilt – your attraction to the very thing you’re condemming.

There is no clearer example of this than in the second and third Jurassic Park movies. At the beginning of each we hear someone invoke one of the current religious taboos, “thou must not tamper with nature.” Once the prayer is said, we are cleansed of guilt, and may freely watch the awesome dinosaurs created via nature tampering. The dinos are cool – the “thou must not tamper with nature” is a cop-out designed to keep us from feeling too guilty about enjoying their rampage. The plot has little to do with reality – the probability of actually getting a complete dino DNA genome is almost zero. But the film doesn’t have to respect this reality – it just has to be entertaining.

So the person warning us of robot danger after seeing a Terminator movie is not only swallowing everything a pack of liars told them – they are lying about their own interest in the subject. Compared to this, the biggest government sleazebag or CIA honcho is an oracle of saintly truth.

Author Neal Gabler has considered our rising belief that movies are somehow more real than reality – or at least a more pleasant place to live than the real world. In his book Life: The Movie – How Entertainment Conquered Reality (on Amazon, ISBN: 0375706534). In this book Gabler details our desire to transform the real world into cinema – make our everyday lives more like the fun, enchanting (and utterly false) world of the movies. Movies are not stories that expose universal truth – they are step-by-step guides to everyday life. A quote from the book describing how camcorders are used) illustrates this:

“Weddings, baby showers, bar mitzvahs . . . even surgeries, all of which had traditionally been undramatic, if occasionally unruly, affairs, were now frequently reconfigured as shows for the video camera complete with narratives and entertaining set pieces throughout. Sometimes a hastily edited version of the tape, complete with musical soundtrack and effects added to boost its entertainment value higher still, would be shown at the climax of the occasion as if the entire purpose of the celebration had really been to tape it.”

In short, we want to recast life itself according to the rules of cinema – storytelling which ignores reality to provide entertainment value. Turns out an investment group is seek $5 billion to build a casino in Las Vegas with a replica of the moon. Hm, for $5 billion one could probably establish a real moon colony. But the Vegas copy is as good – better than the real thing.

We want our lives to be like a movie. We secretly want the excitement of a Terminator world, even while spouting pious apologies warning of its dangers. We aren’t interested in the real – in this case, the real potential, benefits, limitations and dangers of real-world robots. Individuals and roboticists who warn us of the dark future of robots have all fallen for the same flapdoodle – entertainment pretending that it is true.

– posted by Pete @ 7:55 AM


Robots vs. computerized environments
In recent months there has been a revival of discussion of computerized environments, e.g., a home with a network of computers controlling various devices. If this trend continues we may see other old ideas like automated highways dredged up.

Interestingly, the proposals split along two lines. The first and more traditional suggestions are for self-aware spaces sensitive to the real world, e.g., a “smart” house that senses day/night and automatically adjusts its lighting.

The second group of suggestions (often deriving from the PC industry) are for cyberspace overlays on real-world objects. Drawing on the successful example of Global Positioning System (GPS) devices, they envision adding computers to real-world objects to include them in cyberspace. Thus, every device in your home (as well as positions in the home itself) would be turned into nodes in a cyberspace network.

One new feature of computerized environments is the inclusion of robots. Prehaps motivated by the rise of robots as real entities in recent years, some have suggested that they will require computerized environments of the cyberspace variety in order to function. The thinking goes like this: robots have trouble finding their way around, so a computerized environment will send them signals to help their navigation. For example, in a computerized home there would be wireless signals coming from the walls, doorways, stairs, etc. These would create a “virtual house” which could be accessed by people and computers. In order to navigate, the robot would use the virtual model. It might need any real-world senses at all – it would just move according to the cyberspace model.

This approach is successful with GPS. GPS devices are ignorant of their local environment, and typically have no way of sensing where they are by environmental cues (e.g. landmarks). Instead, they tap into the GPS satellite signals, which create an abstract representation of the earth. GPS systems know their position in the grid, but don’t really know that the earth (over which the grid is overlayed) exists at all.

While the GPS approach might seem like a quick and easy solution to robot navigation, it has massive problems. Most importantly, the cyberspace model the so-called robot interacts with must be constantly updated (by people) to maintain its conformity with the real world. Imagine a networked house using the cyberspace model. A human is required to position the various wireless devices sending out “door”, “stairway” and “furniture” signals. If the house is changed, the devices have to be changed. If a device fails, the cyberspce model fails to work even if the device it represents (e.g. a chair) still exists. In short, the human in the house must do two levels of housekeeping – real-world and cyberspace. In the interests of efficiency and getting more tech into homes, people end up doing more work. People have to work harder – conforming their lives to the limitations of the computer.

The proponents of such systems don’t see this as a problem – big suprise. After all, the same groups make us use special handwriting to communicate with PDAs and want us to learn new spoken languages to make computer “voice recognition” a reality. Once again, we must adapt our behavior and spend time learning another set of rules to enjoy the supposed benefits of the computer. Blggh.

Compare the robot lost in cyberspace to one that actually tries to see a doorway or chair. Changing the house around won’t freak it out. The robot adjusts its internal map of the house without human intervention. There is no extra work for people, just a machine trying to adapt to us. This is real robotics, and real benefit.

In the future the true Robots that jump will see the floor via vision, ultrasound, whatever, instead of relying on signals coming from “smart” environments.

Note that the “smart” environments described here have little to do with “smart spaces.” In the smart space concept, various machines in a given environment (e.g. within the hull of a boat cooperate in a bottom-up, behavior-driven network to monitor and maintain their environment. An airplane whose interior was a “smart space” would be minutely aware of its internal state, and be able to detect problems and repair itself – possibly with swarms of mini-robots crawling through its interior. Unlike the passive setting out of GPS-like grids, this is real robotics. The smart space just doesn’t broadcast a cyberspace map of itself – it feeds in environmental stimuli to constantly conform the real world space to an idealized map of itself. This makes closer to biological systems and light years away a simple GPS grid.

Ultimately, the problem with computerized environment stem from the same mistaken assumption – that cyberspace is a driver for robots. Robotic technology is the polar opposite of network/cyberspace technology.

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