There are some things that we take for granted. For example, back on November 18, 2010, I wrote that humanity was due to be absorbed by its impending robot overlords. Most people seemed to think that was a pretty good idea. Why? Well, just watch the news and you’ll figure it out. It’s no wonder that scientists have just tossed any thought for the future of mankind into the landfill and, instead, are concentrating on making singing mice. Let’s face it, when you turn on the news and see some middle aged loser, always male (making me sad to possess testosterone), espousing the joys of trans vaginal ultra sounds for fun and profit you have to, at least, consider the idea that just chucking all of civilization into the dumper and letting robots give it a whirl does seem appealing.
But it’s not quite that easy. As reported in Gizmodo, the first robot overlords will have brains like babies. So, we’ll need to wait for them to mature before we turn over the reins.
Scientists are modeling artificial intelligence after baby brains. Why would they want to make computers similar to beings whose favorite pastimes are drooling and pooping? It makes perfect sense when you think about how malleable a baby’s gray matter is.
Artificially intelligent machines have a tough time with nuances and uncertainty. But babies, toddlers and preschoolers are great at interpreting such things. So Alison Gopnik, a developmental psychologist at UC Berkeley and her colleague Tom Griffiths are putting babies to the test to find ways to incorporate their abilities in to computer programming. “Children are the greatest learning machines in the universe,” Gopnik says. “Imagine if computers could learn as much and as quickly as they do.”
They’ve already found that at very young ages, babies can test hypotheses, detect statistical patterns and draw conclusions about important matters such as lollipops and toys—all the while adapting to changes.
As smart as computers are, youngsters can solve problems that machines can’t, including learning languages and interpreting causal relationships. If computers could be more like children, it might lead to digital tutoring programs, phone operators, or even robots that can identify genes associated with disease susceptibilities. The researchers are creating a center at the Berkeley’s Institute of Human Development to meld baby and computer research.
And if an angry machine comes storming out of there one day in a baby robot rage, the good news is all you’ll need to do is find its binky.
Well, maybe not a binky, but I’m betting that a simple dodecahedron with a reverse temporally engineered spacial anomaly will serve the same purpose.
But, while our robot overlords are being trained, what about the rest of us? James Temple reports that we now have National Robotics Week to help mold our kids into malleable cyber-servants.
It’s National Robotics Week, that time of year when we kneel before our digital overlords and appease them with offerings of batteries and memory chips. Organizations around the nation have planned more than 150 propitiation ceremonies in a desperate effort to gain favor with our mechanical masters – or at least avoid their fiery eye-beams.
That, at least, was my assumption about the National Robotics Week events transpiring this week. Organizers themselves insist the events are intended to showcase the modern capabilities of robots and inspire our nation’s young to learn the skills necessary to build the next generation of machines.
In one of the first Bay Area events, design software giant Autodesk on Monday turned over its gallery space at One Market Street in San Francisco to robot builders of assorted ages.
There were spider-looking robots scampering across the floor upon legs made out of kitchen brushes. There was a small, Transformer-looking gizmo performing cartwheels and headstands. And there was a boxy little robot that could pick up racquet balls and lift them 5-feet into the air – surely a warm-up for human body flinging.
That last one was created by a team of junior girls from Terra Nova High School in Pacifica for the First Tech Challenge, a national robotics competition for grades nine through 12.
They designed it using Autodesk’s Inventor application and constructed it out of metal beams reminiscent of an Erector Set. The team has already breezed through two qualifying rounds and is on its way to the St. Louis championships later this month.
Emma Filar, who works on the software, explained why she spends most evenings and weekends during contest season working on the project: “It’s kind off geeky, but it just makes sense to me. The code is just a jumbled mess to look at, but then it works. I really like working with it and seeing the robot do what I made it do.”
Isn’t that positively adorkable?
National Robotics Week was started three years ago by iRobot and other companies and research groups in an effort to inspire U.S. students to focus on the fields critical to the future. There’s also the issue of making up educational ground against the many nations that have sped ahead of us.
Put simply: Robots are the rolling, beeping, problem-solving personification of the potential of math, science and engineering.
“Robots very quickly get kids excited about what they can do with these things and help them see the possibilities ahead,” said Nancy Dussault Smith, vice president of marketing at iRobot, the Massachusetts maker of the Roomba.
Robo events multiply
In 2010, the U.S. House passed a resolution officially designating the second week in April as National Robotics Week. There were just a handful of events that first year, but this week will see 152, including at least one in every state plus Washington, D.C.
Stanford University has participated each year. The law school’s Center for Internet and Society will host a Robot Block Party open to the public, as well as a job fair, starting at 1 p.m. on Wednesday. More than 1,000 people attended last year, about a third of them kids, estimates Ryan Calo, director of robotics at the center.
Local companies including Willow Garage, SRI International and Adept will be on hand to show off their robots.
“The main purpose of National Robotics Week is to raise awareness in the U.S. about the potential of this technology to be transformative,” Calo said. “It will make us more productive, help us keep a manufacturing edge, continue advances in health care and make businesses run more effectively.”
At least, right up until the robots plug our minds into the mainframe.
SRI, the famed Menlo Park research institute, plans to unveil its Taurus robot to the public for the first time. It’s basically a modular, portable update of its surgical robot technology designed to defuse bombs.
They call it a “high fidelity telemanipulation tool,” which is a fancy way of saying it has the dexterity to open irregular objects like paper bags and sever tiny wires.
Better lives for people
Willow Garage will be demonstrating the Pr2, an open source robot that university researchers have adapted to fold laundry, bake cookies, flip pancakes and deliver beer.
The Menlo Park lab is also testing the robots with disabled people, and sees great potential to restore some mobility and independence to those paralyzed or blind.
The block party is an opportunity to talk to children and adults about “what robots are and what robots can be in the future,” said Steve Cousins, chief executive of Willow Garage. “When you hear robot, it’s often followed by overlord, no thanks to Hollywood. So as we think about trying to create an industry where robots become a greater part of life, there needs to be an outreach to let people know, ‘Hey, there’s something exciting here.'”
OK, OK. Helping the disabled, disarming bombs, delivering frosty beverages. Maybe these robots aren’t so bad after all.
But I still hope these kids remember to include kill switches.
And everyone of those skills will supplant a human worker freeing them up to be helpful servants to their new masters.
See? It all’s working out for the best.
Listen to Bill McCormick on WBIG (FOX! Sports) every Friday around 9:10 AM.