Robots That Jump

Robot Bodies Needed Before Robot Minds

There are robots…and there are robots

There are two definitions of robots. One is the movie definition of humanoid or animal-oid creatures displaying intelligence and intent. The second is a machine operating in the real world (as opposed to standard computer virtual worlds) which reacts to sensor input. Intelligence and intent is lacking. By this second standard, we have growth in the robotics industry:

The article discusses the growth of the service robot industry. Frankly, that isn’t news. The growth in robotics, aside from research, has been in service for many years. These kind of robots still follow the ‘industrial’ model – meaning they are not autonomous or intelligent. The factors allowing their expansion have been (1) making the environments they work in more “machine-like”, and (2) a desire by businesses to ‘shed’ employees during the last few years.

In other words, there is growth, but it is mostly hard times – companies experiment with alternatives to human workers to save costs. Earlier, this trend may have contributed to making ‘machine-like’ work environments – you can drop the skill, and paycheck of workers you hire if your make the work more “mechanical”. This point was discussed at length by Marshall Brain in his “robot nation” articles from the early 2000s.

The other factor causing growth (or at least reported growth) in the next few years is conflation of mobile devices into the “robot” category. The vision of a software agent like Siri – which takes your spoken commands and “does stuff” for you on your mobile iPad or android is often seen as robotic. In fact, these devices are robotic only in how the movie showing them in operation makes them look like sneak machine intelligences. It’s helped by the huge number of new mobile users mistaking a puppet show for real artificial intelligence. The ability of software agents to use online resources is helped by (surprise!) making the web more “semantic” – meaning we formalize the structure of chaotic web into formats that machines lacking intelligence can understand. So, having Siri look up the best airline tickets requires common, formal standards for looking up airline tickets. Compare that the the more clumsy, but effective, way that people search for these things online.

The fact that the “semantic web” hasn’t been implemented is a testament to how useful natural intelligence, coupled with a messy, chaotic web architecture and interface has been.

So, I interpret the current growth of the industry as following the pattern from the late 1990s onward – pretty much the same kinds of machines are slowly expanding their use. It is evolutionary, rather then revolutionary. Revolution requires a shift from “artificial intelligence” and pick and place machines to robots that can function effectively in “natural” environments without a lot of central planning.

It’s true that the robot walkers are getting better – check out this biped from Boston Dynamics, creator of “Big Dog”

…but notice that the guy doesn’t push the biped very hard, compared to the kicks received by “big dog”

…and a ‘weaponized’ big dog can fight back, though it’s even dumber than a bull…

To date, NONE of the “growth” of the robot industry, except in research, has come from these kinds of robots. When it does, we will have our “next big thing”.


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