Robots That Jump

Robot Bodies Needed Before Robot Minds

Everyone pretends not to shake hands with themselves

Here’s a post on NASA’s Robonaut 2, an update of the tele-operated space robot designed to facilitate work on the (defunct) Shuttle and International Space Station:

Link to Robonaut 2 Site:

In itself, Robonaut 2 is quite interesting. They still care about its looks – it is more like the Rockteer than Boba Fett now. It moves faster and demonstrates greater dexterity than the earlier model. Robonaut has some ability to move on its own, but to date, it has been used in a remote-control fashion. The near-term goal – send Robonaut out in a tele-operation fashion to work outside on the Space Station – is close. The long-term goal – have an autonomous Robonaut repair the Space Station – is decades away at least.

Here’s the video:

In the video, you can see Robonaut 2 extend its arm. It doesn’t go for the outstretched hand – it moves  down and possibly to the left. However, the human is willing to take its hand and shake. That’s a good sign – the problem with robot arms for decades has been that they are dangerous, even deadly to be around. One small miscalculation by the program or arm sensors and you have been thrown across the room.

But once again, the real show is not the slow progress no Robonaut, but how people react. NASA is in serious touble in early 2012, with the proposed budget zapping it even more. The exploration of space is hard to sell. So, let’s see NASA Space Station crew communicate with an Ai! Maybe the public will like the agency better if they look a little like Science Fiction Channel.

Everyone seems convinced, both journalists and Internet riff-raff commenting on the video, that this device is a real robot that wanted to shake hands.  If the press and public were told what’s actually going on, they would assume that (1) intelligent Robonaut is just around the corner, or (2) there’s a conspiracy to hide the real robot overlords which the goverment is cooking up to mate with us, Cylon-style.

The NASA site certainly doesn’t try to enlighten anyone – it’s a good practice for an agency worried about having its funding cut to make the public think you have a true Ai – rather than a humanoid tele-operated system that might be extremely useful in some environments. Apparently, it’s good practice to say that this device is just a tiny hop away from “machine overlord” status, just so long as it isn’t actually overlording yet. We really want it to have a mind of its own, properly docile and servicing the International Space Station, but a friendly pet that will extend its steely hand in a soft glove of friendship.

People like seeing The Prophecies coming true!

Seeing this, I can’t help but think how little we’ve progressed from Roman “temple tricks”. Back in the Roman city of Alexandria, temples could have automatic doors, and mechanical gods inside ratcheted on gears to wow the mob. This kind of thing already had a long history then – lots of older Egyptian statues had channels to let hidden priests “tele-operate” the god by speaking in a divine voice of overlord-ery.

We have to differentiate what Robonaut can do (useful tele-operation work) from what we want it to do.

The reality is that our current “machine overlords” are sensor packs, monitors and dashboards that feed back information to us on ourselves. The Quantified Self movement has a better sense of reality. Computers have failed massively at being intelligent, but they have worked well as Lickleider’s “Intelligence Amplifiers” – adding a punch to intelligent behavior. Now, quantified self lets us guide our own behavior more rationally.

A “robot” that monitors my body temperature, then acts by sending messages about my health to Facebook is the goal of Quantitfied Self.

At present, the most intelligence is seen in how Internet apps augment our social communication. Rather than shaking hands with a supposed intelligent robot, it makes more sens to shake hands with our friends, or, in the case of Quantified Self, ourselves. Of course, it has its own Doomer prophecy, and a little too much trust that “goodness” is the same as “optimization” (computer operation invading ordinary life and thought, again).

A little too optimistic at TED:

Reality bites:

But then, Robonaut 2 in its hand-shake cameo is nothing of the sort. It is a temple-trick. It is a big metal puppet that doesn’t even augment our own actions. We are content to see this as a future god.

But what if the future of robotics is in an advanced form of the Quantified Self? We’ll be communicating to ourselves, via our robot puppets, that we are our own gods. It’s lonely.


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