Robots That Jump

Robot Bodies Needed Before Robot Minds

Asian robot hands and robot swarms

Here’s a nice video showing the slooowww but real progress in robotic dexterity in Asia, shown by the HUBO series of robots:

Looking at the video, the robots are still walking like old people ready to fall over, but the body structure is clearly lighter and more compact than a year ago.

This video shows one of our other old friends the HRP-4

Like the Korean robots, these show signs of becoming lighter and more compact, though the power density of the robots (by that I mean their ability to do meaningful work) is far below a human. Velocity of motion has gone up, but their motions themselves feel very “machine like” and not at all like an animal. Out of the group, the HRP seems most interesting. This is partly due to its height (it looks long and thin, yet balances with relatively small feet). The other interesting aspect of the video is having the HRP use a mirror to examine its “health” screen on its back. This looks strangely like the cover view of Jeannie Novak’s and Kevin Saunders’ new volume in Game Development Essentials, “Game Interface Design” (check for it on Amazon).

The NAO is least impressive – it is easy to animate a small robot so it doesn’t appear clunky.

In any case, Robots That Jump are still sideshows. The real action in robotics these days lies in tele-operated devices, or “drones”. They are increasing in capability, dropping in cost, and busily being hooked to databases which provide a certain kind of smarts.  The best source for this kind of “real” robotics is Global Guerrillas, an awesome blog by John Robb. In it, he postulates swarms of simple drones working like flocks of metal birds, operating for years at a time one their own. With no real artificial intelligence, they will nonetheless have the ability to tap into huge “cloud” server databases. These databases will (dumbly) correlated things like credit card use and pictures from subway terminals to allow tracking almost anyone. The future drones will be micro-small enough to fly in and zap one person in a crowd, leaving others unhurt. As an extreme example, Robb discusses “smart bullets” – bullets with processors and small fins that steer themselves to their target.

Here’s an article about how the U.K. is putting millions into robot R&D – the drone, rather than the humanoid kind.

The big worry that Robb has is similar to mine – these machines will be deployed as if they are some sort of smart, godlike force which keeps the peace. A world of drones controlled from the Internet in effect, gives said Internet an immune system – it can wipe out the few hundred per year terrorists which might threaten its existence. It doesn’t have to be intelligent, and it won’t be. But it will be guided by decisions from the top.

As Robb points out, current drone use, from the President to Google blocking URLs, is automated. It follows machine rules with little flexibility.  People in the loop are outside any democratic process. Here’s a choice quote:

So, if you combine the automation of terrorist identification with an administrative “hit” list with automated drones that execute the order, you have a global killing machine. A machine that requires very few people to run and can kill almost anyone.  A machine that will eventually be able to close the loop from a data trigger (enough to ID a person as a threat and provide a location for where that person is) to a kill shot in in a matter of minutes.

The thing that Robb doesn’t imagine is that we might treat this as “true Ai”. In other words, failing to create genuine intelligence we will convince ourselves that this is the work of intelligent machines. In reality, it will be a strict, possibly “feudal” (Robb’s words) system notable for its inflexibility and lack of intelligence.

Given the state of the robots in the video versus the rise or drones, it looks like we will have two ages of robotics. In the long run, we’ll get Robots That Jump, but before that, cell-like and fish-school machine populations will dominate. The danger is that we delude ourselves into thinking that either type of metal puppet is more than automatic.


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