Robots That Jump

Robot Bodies Needed Before Robot Minds

Metal Puppets have feelings, too!

At the beginning of the year, there’s a lot of optimism. For the last few years, the stock market has been positive, along with the US economy, only to suffer “slowdowns” later in the year. In the area of robotics, we see both optimism and willful delusion at its peak for the year right now.

Jump to CES 2012, and an interview between iRobot and Forbes reporter Elizabeth Woyke.

Ava, an iRobot telepresence robot

Ava with a phony human head

earlier link:

Well, Ava is a telepresence robot – the kind of remote-controlled metal puppet that robot science has been experimenting with for 30 years, if not more. The biggie is not creating a telepresence robot that looks like an animated broomstick – it’s using an iOS or Android tablet to run the robot’s so-called “brains”.  Apparently, iRobot is counting on Google and/or Apple to adapt features designed for cellphones (e.g. face and voice recognition) so that this can be applied in a standards-based way to robots. Great, since iRobot doesn’t have to create custom programs for the same.

Interestingly, Ava isn’t even on the iRobot website – just a trade show bunny.

Certainly, using a tablet for the computer might help in robot adoption. There’s been no real success at creating a “robot OS“, and so the boost to 1980s personal computers provided by DOS and Mac OS has been missing. Tablets are relatively cheap and a huge community exists to program them. The “app” model tends to produce single-purpose programs, often of low enough complexity that a lone programmer can produce quality code. And the app community might help develop “robotic apps” in the mode that has led to an explosion of apps on cellphones and tablets. The potential is similar to Microsoft’s Kinect SDK. What’s not to like?

I suppose to a young Millennial reporter from Forbes who doesn’t know anything about the past or robotics (sorry, the Millennial generation understands even less of the past then previous gens) – Ava must seem like something that “must happen”, “tomorrow today”.


To clarify, there are lots of telepresence robots, both old and new. Many of the groups making them, (including iRobot) have fielded several models starting about a decade ago. The current tech-everywhere boom, in contrast to a generally down economy, has made these robots interesting again:

Here’s one service/teleoperator robot actually doing stuff, from VGO Robotics

VGO, source for tele-operated robots for service and medical industries

VGO, another metal puppet

And, we cannot leave out this Google tele-operated robot worthy of Big Bang Theory:

Google's Johnny Lee's face on his tele-operated robot

Johnny Lee - or Sheldon?

And my old friend, Fred Nikgohar, at RoboDynamics:

Fred Nikogar of RoboDynamics onscreen his tele-presence robot

Fred in Luna

Boy, (where I found Fred’s new stuff) has the Techna religion in full swing, witness this quote:

“...Will the future be filled with cool technologies and endless opportunities or will our own creations lead to eventual doom?…

These were the guys warning us about the coming “End Times” 1000 years ago, if reincarnation is a reality…

Another “blast from the early 2000s” – Anybot

Anybot telepresence robot with Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon

Jeff Bezos and Anybot

This in itself is hardly “innovation”, except that cheap, mass-produced computers are being used to operate the robots. Tele-operated robots with enought height to show a screen “face” to humans is an idea many years in the making. They were being being tested in “trial” runs  in 2002. iRobot’s Ada looks behind the curve, rather than leading it, though I saw no mention of the tele-operated robot they released right after their floor-sweeper.

Now, onto the claims and willful delusion of the reporter, in the main article on Forbes.

  1. Ava is “intelligent” because “she” (um, where are the genitals) has iOS or Android apps installed. That’s what the article says. This is crazy. Apps are not powerful enough to produce meaningful intelligence. IBM’s Watson needed several-thousand high-performance CPUs to produce one feature of human memory – deducing a question from an answer. A low-power, mobile device running a robot can’t possibly produce intelligence of the “Ai” variety.Why does the author say this? One possiblity is that, in the mind of the tech-faithful, robots are becoming intelligent, and will soon be smarter than us, end times, skynet, upload, immortal… (gag).Or, for this author, intelligence is the same thing as running a mobile app. It is as if intelligence and “good app” are the same. Such a statement tends to validate those old hippies out there who complain that Millennials lack the ability to question their own preconceived notions. A bit of reflection should make it obvious how stupid this is. If that’s the case, I recommend she read: “You are not a Gadget” (though it’s too long to text) are simply not intelligent. The only way that would happen is if the robo-app Ajaxed its way into a monster server cloud, which is suppose is possible someday.  The reporter confuses utility with intelligence. She maps gadget-ness to having a mind.
  2. Ada is special because of her height (nope, that has been done for about 30 years).
  3. Ada is special because she has emotions.This was irritating enough to motivate me to write this entire blog. It is another example of the bizzare vitalism that has resurfaced in a supposedly secular, scientific culture. Whatever Ada does to flash “her” lights is not emotion. The mammalian emotional brain is extremely unlikely to resemble iOS in any way. There are unlikely to be discrete programs creating emotion, software, discrete states, variables, etc. Ada most likely has some programs sampling recent sensory history, and then applying some state engine rules to jump to an “emotional” state.To let Mark Chiappetta blather on about this “female” robot’s emotions (girls are more emotional, of course and flash pink) is the sign of a nonprofessional journalist.“…Ava’s color-altering moods don’t flare up often…” – Elizabeth Woyke, Forbes OnlineApparently, asking Mark if Ada’s emotions were real, or if tested they would match, or at least mimic, animal emotion would have been like farting – too impolite. It’ like someone interviewing a priest and asking about “the meaning” of their faith, carefully ignoring hard questions whether a saint really did appear on a slice of toast.In fact, Ada is a big metal puppet. There’s much that is cool about that – it is what Aristotle wrote about when he imagined replacing human slaves with machines 2500 years ago:“…There is only one condition in which we can imagine managers not needing subordinates, and masters not needing slaves. This condition would be that each (inanimate) instrument could do its own work, at the word of command or by intelligent anticipation, like the statues of Daedalus or the tripods made by Hephaestus, of which Homer relates that

    ‘Of their own motion they entered the conclave of Gods on Olympus…’

    as if a shuttle should weave of itself, and a plectrum should do its own harp playing.”  – Aristotle, Politics

    But, when I watch a puppet perform I don’t think that its movements make it emotional, unless I’m a gullible rustic like those visiting temples 2000 years ago where Heron of Alexandria put his robots. I bet the robot which hauled his “automatic play” to the stage looked a lot like the broomstick robots above.

    I might talk to a small child about the emotions of Kermit the frog, but kids more than a few years old know that the frog puppet doesn’t feel anything – it is “tele-operating” emotions created by its manipulator.

    And, I’m not knocking priests. There are plenty of religious people who enjoy debating their beliefs.  A typical Jesuit these days (though not in 1500 A.D.) would be happy if a chance for debate about the reality of God or soul came up – they’ve thought it through and through and can discuss it rationally, if not always convincingly.

    However, the new tech-religious faithful are more afraid of insulting their god, or their high poo-bahs at trade shows by asking if robots like Ada actually have emotions. It’s the new machine-vitalism.

    This article is one of hundreds on the web where the reporter blindly accepts any crazy thing said about arobot, since they apply only their irrational belief in Techna, and not their knowledge of robotic science.  iRobot may have created a useful robot, and I’m not knocking that. I’m attacking too-easy belief in “the ghost in the machine”.

    Now, if you say we will get more funding for robotics if we pretend the metal puppets are alive, you are exactly like a priest operating one of Heron’s “temple tricks” who lies to keep the unwashed believing in their religion.

    Hey, my programming skills are modest, but I could write code for a room-dimmer that used ultrasound and a microprocessor to detect a person entering a room, and flashed pink lights if they “left too soon”. Is this anger? Have I created emotion? The only way Ada can have emotions is if we accept that said room-dimmer can be “happy” or “sad”.

    We could apply a Turing test (essentially 1950s Behaviorism applied to machines) and say that if  Ada flashes the right lights at the right times, she has an emotion. This is acceptable only if actions are the only reality, and inner states (mechanism) is irrelevant or don’t even exist.

    But if you believe that, emotion in humans isn’t any different from flashing lights when you bump into something. And, if that’s the case, the scream of a dying human is not different from the reboot bell on a PC. I suspect that there’s a lot more going on in the human versus the machine.

    But the Forbes article, supposedly produced for critical-thinking adults, has a Santa Claus like acceptance of the intelligent and emotional Ada, along with an implied future rise of her brethren. Ada may be a useful metal puppet, but the idea of her iPad brain having a “mad app” is crap. I doubt if Ada Byron herself, even in the most kooky of her drug-induced dreams, would have accepted this idea.

    Here’s my advice to everyone who writes such faith-based machine flapdoodle. Stop worrying about the mind of a robot. Stop acting like a puppet really has feelings. Oddly enough, the same reporter did an article on RoMeLa, the Robotics & Mechanism Laboratory in the forefront 0f creating Robots That Jump.

    Charli, a humanoid robot

    CHARLI - No Mind, Great Bod

    Unlike the babbling about the “mind” of a robot rife on tech-blogs and in Singularian bibles, robots that move confidently in the environment don’t require speculating about a ghost in the machine – they either do or they don’t work. My feeling  (unlike Ada, who doesn’t have any), is that Robots that Jump are the real cool.


2 responses to “Metal Puppets have feelings, too!

  1. Elizabeth Woyke March 16, 2012 at 9:36 pm

    Hi, I’m the reporter that did that iRobot video and the part about Ava having “emotions” was tongue-in-cheek.

  2. pindiespace March 16, 2012 at 10:01 pm

    Yes, absolutely, and thanks for posting. I didn’t mean to imply that there was anything literal about the emotions described in the article.

    The gripe here is not the specific story, but the larger cultural dynamic – we can’t write about robots except as being about to become human, wanting to enslave us, advancing to Overmind status, and the like.

    The challenge is that robots today are very far from actual thought and intent, and that the most interesting advances are being made in robot bodies, rather than robot minds. Companies that create robots constantly imply they’ve created something one step below Skynet, and the public looks for this kind of story. Belief in the rising power of robots, and their next-year ascent to machine-god status has partly replaced faith in gods and miracles in secular culture.

    It’s worth remembering that in the early 20th century, humans were assumed to have evolved through a “smart ape” path – one day a monkey with a giant brain woke up and found itself self-aware. Upright posture and dexterity with tools were assumed to have evolved in response to a large brain. Today, we know that the human body had its modern form long before the human brain acheved its current size.

    Similarly, with robots, there’s a watch for a ghost inside the machine, which is exactly the wrong way around. The assumption seems to be that something that looks like the “Short Circuit” robot can have a mind. In practice, despite the confident predictions of futurists, that kind of mind is very far off. In the near term, the thing to look for is something that can walk without falling down, and can replicate the kind of physical confidence that even simple animals like insects routinely achieve. It will take a robot that can jump (in particular do a whole aerobics routine) to have any chance of incubating a mind.

    My own opinion is in a secular age, we want to believe that we are about to create “mind children” – and that it’s not a great thing for society. It makes us spend money on the wrong things.

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