Robots That Jump

Robot Bodies Needed Before Robot Minds

Monthly Archives: November 2012

NASA “robot” is finally used correctly

Here’s a change in NASA’s Robonaut program that illustrates the problems with Robots That Jump.

Picture of man wearing modified Robonaut hardware, allowing him to stand and do knee bends

The right use for Robonaut hardware

Three cheers for NASA! The new version of the NASA Robonaut program is an exoskeleton for a human. In other words, attempts to make the “robot” smart on its own are on the back-burner, and instead, we’ve put a soft, wet, mushy human at the center of the robotic frame. Robonaut, which was formerly dumb as a stump, is now smart because its exoskeleton is powered by a human brain instead of a computer.

This illustrates how much better agile robots are than so-called “smart” robots. Smart robots try to think, and computers have proved a woefully inadequate way to implement thinking. Considering the huge size of a “cloud” language parser/search engine like Siri (another DARPA project, like agile robots), it isn’t going to be easy to make anything that will fit into a robot body. In fact, it is becoming harder and harder to imagine a robot not connected constantly to a 50,000 computer cloud service, just to move and talk. The chance that this can be shrunk into a few hundred watts of onboard hardware is a pipe dream for the near and middle-term.

In fact, the hoopla over Siri as “the latest” artificial intelligence is overblown. Its amazing how many posts there are about Siri, without any attempt to understand or discover how Siri works. The mysterious “cloud” is enough, like the gods on Olympus were once enough.

In fact, the concept has been around since the 1980s at Apple, as this video of an “Knowledge Navigator” or software “agent” (why we got “Agent Smith” later in The Matrix later).

Screenshot from apples 1980s Knowledge Navigator video, a precursor to siri

Looks like an iPad, got the form factor right

In fact, that video comes from the 1960s “The Mother of all Demos” by Douglas Engelbart, which shows the same disembodied voices (properly human this time) managing communication and search. Just like Siri, except the speech, like human speech, is more interesting than Siri.

doub engelbart showing future communication via computer networks

Talks better than Siri

In other words, Apple just added Artificial Intelligence to the Engelbart video since they were a computer company. Apple, and the rest of us, is desperate for machine intelligence, hence, the overblown ideas about Siri and the belief that Robonaut is somehow an early robotic intelligence (instead of just a pair of legs).

The software to create Siri was developed by DARPA in the early 2000s, spun into a company, later acquired by Apple. So, Apple got their Knowledge Navigator, running on Alan Kay’s Dynabook from the 1960s.

sketch of alan kay's dynabook from his 1972 paper

Looks like my iPad

Cool, but the future is the past. And it don’t help Robonaut, who is now reduced to a press-release pseudo robot, coupled with a practical robot body for humans. Will Robonaut someday be fondly viewed as the vision of a future intelligent astro-robot? Not likely, at least on a 20-year timeframe.

It’s not a new thing. But it’s not the kind of artificial intelligence that could make Robonaut speak, move its arms on its own, even to wave bye-bye.

In contrast, consider the plus of the Robonaut program. By focusing on making an agile robot body (despite all the stupid press reports about Robonaut’s intelligence) NASA has actually accomplished something. Contrast that to the thousands of projects that created an Ai-style brain in a clumsy, sensor-free body. But for the press, we still have to pretend we’re making some sort of metal man:

robonaut extending its hand, as if it knew what it was doing

Nope, it doesn’t know it is greeting you

Frankly, the idea of a humanoid robot astronaut is cool, but unlikely for a very, very long time. The what we have are the inhuman, tele-operated robot-like devices on Mars like Curiosity, which just failed to verify the existence of methane, a possible sign of life. Life on Mars is now less likely, due to good science. But Curiosity is just a pair of hands. Despite its greater complexity compared to earlier Mars landers and rovers, it can’t do much on its own, especially compared to a human geologist. But is is a decent robotic body for the task – a Robot That Jumps.

In fact, these intelligent robot astronauts are fantasy to the extent I’m surprised that NASA hasn’t jumped on other fantasies. Take the vampire train, or rather spaceship. Now that Edward and Bela are both vampires with ultra-tough bodies requiring little oxygen, and they have a strong sense of civic duty to they human race. In other words, their vampiric tissue is clearly the “right stuff” – they are perfect astronauts. Why not a sequel to Twilight with the undead couple signing up for NASA? How about alien bloodsuckers? Robonaut can be their sidekick. After all, the universe is soooo vast, there are sooo many stars, it MUST have happened somewhere!