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When does a Machine Become a Robot, and a Robot Become a Human?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Defining what a robot is isn't easy. There may be general agreement that it's a machine, but beyond that, the definitions vary from expert to expert. Most people agree that for a machine to "qualify" as a robot it must have some form of intelligence with a capacity to be programmed and to perform tasks commonly done by humans or animals. In addition, most people would require a robot to have some human or animal physical features, like arms, feet, eye or ears.

The word "robot" was introduced to the world in 1921 by the Czech playwright Karel Capek in his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots). Robots have come a very long way since then, yet have much further to go; science fiction helps us guess how far. Writers like Capek love robots because they allow their imaginations free rein. They can endow their robots with omnipotent powers for good or evil. Readers and cinemagoers love robots too, because they're machines with very human traits. We can even develop affection for them, as with the two lovable robots in Star Wars. More seriously, we can visualise future robot soldiers with super human strength fighting wars in place of humans, or robots working on industrial processes or in locations too hazardous for humans. After the recent Japanese nuclear disaster, urgent work had to be done near the reactors. Radiation levels were too high for humans, yet only humans had the skill needed to deal with all the problems. This environment would have been perfect for the deployment of robots and they were used there for some operations. But no suitable robots were available for the most critical work. Hopefully, they will have been developed in time for similar operations in the future. This raises the question: How advanced are today's robots?

Amazingly advanced is the simple answer and they're getting more sophisticated all the time. Much of the development in robotics is funded by the military. Robots are being developed to carry heavy loads across uneven terrain and take the load off soldiers' backs. Some of these robots walk on four agile legs like big dogs or small mules. They have extra wide backs to carry greater loads and a lower centre of gravity for more stability. One such "animal" appropriately named BigDog is at an advanced stage of development at Boston Dynamics, a company working for the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It can walk up steep wooded inclines, through snow and even along the ties of a railroad. It doesn't fall over when forcefully shoved from the side, but instantly adjusts its gait and steadies itself just like a four-legged animal.

At a less serious level there's the humanoid robot Nao developed by the French company Aldebaran Robotics. This little guy stands on two legs and is just 58 cm high (22.83 inches). He doesn't fall over thanks to his computer-controlled accelerometer and gyrometer. He doesn't walk into obstacles either, thanks to his two camera eyes and ultra-sound echo system. He has many very human-like features. He can talk in both English and French, and even recognises the person talking to him. Some of his capabilities could make us humans envious. Wouldn't it be handy if your brain could download all the images you remember of your last vacation? Well, if Nao had gone with you, he could do just that. He can also surf the web and communicate with other Naos by WiFi. Cute as he is, Nao is really a serious chap. He's the world's most widely used humanoid robot for academic purposes, mainly because he's fully programmable and uses specially designed software compatible with Windows, Mac OS and Linux.

The more robots display human traits, the more we interact with them as though they were rational beings. Of course, they're not, at least not yet. Nevertheless, their similarities to humans bring up very profound questions: Will robots be rational in the future? Will humans always be fundamentally different from robots? What does being human mean? Could robots become more intelligent than we are and pose a threat to the human race - a scenario often portrayed in science fiction?

The dangers of such excessive machine power were vividly illustrated by "HAL," the computer with the monotone voice in the iconic film "2001: A Space Odyssey." Some may say that HAL was not a robot; he had no limbs and no way to move about. But he had no need to. He had eyes everywhere and electronic "fingers" connected to every part of the spacecraft. His ultra-sensitive brain knew the crew's thoughts, feelings and intentions. What we learn from this cautionary work of science fiction is that man must always be able to override the machine. That seems obvious, but in the future it may prove easier said than done. HAL was programmed to ensure the mission's completion and the integrity of the ship's systems for the duration of the long trip to Mars. When the crew decided to alter the mission, HAL couldn't allow that to happen. He did all in his power to prevent it, including killing crewmembers. It was only by human cleverness and luck that eventually he was disconnected. It could easily have been otherwise.

HAL showed that robots don't need to have physical limbs to wield great power. Little electronic computer programs that scour the Internet looking for information for search engines like Google are called robots. The internet itself is like an enormous living entity with tentacles enmeshing the globe, constantly searching for and disseminating data at enormous speed. Malicious software is a good example of how parts of this huge "robot" can be controlled by malefactors. The success of malware suggests that in some ways, this robot we call the Internet may already be beyond our control.

Right now, it's not a compliment to be told that you act like a robot. Soon, it will no longer be insulting; it will mean you're a highly intelligent individual with enormous talent. Further into the future though, when robots have taken over the earth and turned us all into slaves, it will again become an insult. Humankind's future may depend on us knowing when it's still not too late to stop that happening. Rather ominously, the word "robot," first coined by Karel Capek in 1921 comes from the Czech word "robata," which means forced work or serf labour. In the play, highly intelligent robots do all the hard work for humans. In the end, they mutiny, and the ensuing rebellion leads to the annihilation of the human race. Let's hope not all science fiction writers are clairvoyant.

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