Robots That Jump

Robot Bodies Needed Before Robot Minds

Robots That Jump – Historical Feb 9, 2004

Monday, February 09, 2004

Robots that howl – Recycled robo-dog activists
Remarkable project using recycled dog-robots taking place over at the Feral Robotic Dogs website. In a project started by Yale engineering lecturer Natalie Jeremijenko, student re-furbish old robot dogs with more advanced computers and the ability to smell toxic chemicals. New progamming includes pack ability – a robot-dog which has the strongest “scent” can lead the others to the source.

Most interesting about this project is the political/cultural statements it is wrapped in. Jeremijenko calls the retrofitted robots “activitists” and stresses that they are designed to provide a meaningful function in the local community. Here’s a quote from the Associated Press article on Feb. 9, 2004

“Technology is a social actor,” she said. “These dogs are programmed into instruments for social activism. It’s technological politics in another form.”

This is a remarkable step. In the US, robotics projects are usually justified in the interests of pure research or possible military use. Whenever public/consumer uses come up, they are quickly put aside – we will have to wait “many years” for this to happen. At that point the discussion shifts to the dreary, century-long philosophical discussion of what do we think of intelligent machines (yawn) or whether they will revolt and enslave the earth (zzzzzzzz).

The Yale robots are something completely new, despite their secondhand origin. They are not the robots of Hollywood or idle speculation of tech writers. They are not hobby robots, either. From start to finish, they have a purpose that breaks dramatically from earlier robotic visions. True, people have talked about using robots to work in dangerous environments. But what’s new here is that the robots themselves embody a political agenda. The “agenda” is not too clearly articulated but it seems to be having local-acting robots sniff out toxic waste left behind by sneaky multinational corporations. You don’t have to agree with the politics to see how radically different this vision of robotics is!

Key quote:

“It’s extremely important that engineers understand the social implications of their designs.”

Second, the robots are real and practical. No waiting around for human-level intelligence, no protests that more research must be done, etc. Even in their current primitive state, these robots are doing “good work.” More brains would be helpful, but not necessary. This project shows that every tech writer saying that “practical robots are many years away” is out to lunch.

Finally, despite the AP report, the typical tech trades like ZDnet, Wired, and the like don’t even mention it. When will it reach these trades? Possibly never, except as afterthought reporting on a related industry – which it is. There’s no linear path from the PC/Internet world to robotics. Robotics is a parallel technological develop in the same way computers paralleled special-purpose electronic systems. Even when a standard PC is used to make a robot, e.g. White Box Robotics, the end result is different.

I’m looking forward to the day that a bunch of little robo-dogs are romping outside my window…


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