Good News If You’re an Impending Robot Overlord

I am your new Droid, you are my app for that.
Everything in the universe contains flaws, ourselves included. Even God does not attempt perfection in His creations. Only humankind has such foolish arrogance. – Cogitor Kwyna (Dune: The Butlerian Jihad). Not that you asked, but I happen to like the Dune books not written by Frank Herbert. They are less predictable. Anyway, the quote is nevertheless true. And man’s arrogance is leading, rapidly, to a really (and I mean insanely) bad idea. Back on November 18, 2010, I first wrote about how mankind was greasing the skids to its eventual doom. Seriously, I even posted links so that humans could learn to speak binary and be useful to their new masters. You would think that a warning like that would resonate.

You would be wrong. A quick search of this site shows multiple articles about our impending doom at the hands of robots. From Deathbots to Sexbots, robots are infiltrating our every aspect of our lives.

And scientists, the very people who should know better, are happily abetting Robo-Armageddon. For example, they are developing a robot that can hide from humans indefinitely. You know, a “stealth bot.”

A team of researchers led by George Whitesides, the Woodford L. and Ann A. Flowers University Professor, has already broken new engineering ground with the development of soft, silicone-based robots inspired by creatures like starfish and squid.

Now, they’re working to give those robots the ability to disguise themselves.

As demonstrated in an August 16 paper published in Science, researchers have developed a system — again, inspired by nature — that allows the soft robots to either camouflage themselves against a background, or to make bold color displays. Such a “dynamic coloration” system could one day have a host of uses, ranging from helping doctors plan complex surgeries to acting as a visual marker to help search crews following a disaster, said Stephen Morin, a Post-Doctoral Fellow in Chemistry and Chemical Biology and first author of the paper.

“When we began working on soft robots, we were inspired by soft organisms, including octopi and squid,” Morin said. “One of the fascinating characteristics of these animals is their ability to control their appearance, and that inspired us to take this idea further and explore dynamic coloration. I think the important thing we’ve shown in this paper is that even when using simple systems — in this case we have simple, open-ended micro-channels — you can achieve a great deal in terms of your ability to camouflage an object, or to display where an object is.”

“One of the most interesting questions in science is ‘Why do animals have the shape, and color, and capabilities that they do?'” said Whitesides. “Evolution might lead to a particular form, but why? One function of our work on robotics is to give us, and others interested in this kind of question, systems that we can use to test ideas. Here the question might be: ‘How does a small crawling organism most efficiently disguise (or advertise) itself in leaves?’ These robots are test-beds for ideas about form and color and movement.”

Just as with the soft robots, the “color layers” used in the camouflage start as molds created using 3D printers. Silicone is then poured into the molds to create micro-channels, which are topped with another layer of silicone. The layers can be created as a separate sheet that sits atop the soft robots, or incorporated directly into their structure. Once created, researchers can pump colored liquids into the channels, causing the robot to mimic the colors and patterns of its environment.

The system’s camouflage capabilities aren’t limited to visible colors though.

By pumping heated or cooled liquids into the channels, researchers can camouflage the robots thermally (infrared color). Other tests described in the Science paper used fluorescent liquids that allowed the color layers to literally glow in the dark.

The uses for the color-layer technology, however, don’t end at camouflage.

Just as animals use color change to communicate, Morin envisions robots using the system as a way to signal their position, both to other robots, and to the public. As an example, he cited the possible use of the soft machines during search and rescue operations following a disaster. In dimly lit conditions, he said, a robot that stands out from its surroundings (or even glows in the dark) could be useful in leading rescue crews trying to locate survivors.

“What we hope is that this work can inspire other researchers to think about these problems and approach them from different angles,” he continued. “There are many biologists who are studying animal behavior as it relates to camouflage, and they use different models to do that. We think something like this might enable them to explore new questions, and that will be valuable.”

Sure, Stealth Bots that can avoid detection by any method known to man and can then just jump out and catch us? Gosh, what could possibly go wrong? Well at least they can’t run us down.

Ooops, spoke too soon.

Robots are already stronger than humans, able to lift thousands of pounds at a time. In many ways, they’re smarter than people, too; machines can perform millions of calculations per second, and even beat us at chess. But we could at least take solace in the fact that we could still outrun our brawny, genius robot overlords if we needed to.

Until now, that is. A four-legged robot, funded by the Pentagon, has just run 28.3 miles per hour. That’s faster than the fastest man’s fastest time ever. Oh well, ruling the planet was fun while it lasted.

The world record for the 100 meter dash was set in 2009 by sprinter Usain Bolt, who averaged 23.35 mph during his run for a time of 9.58 seconds. Over one 20-meter stretch, he managed to get up to 27.78 mph. It was a pretty impressive feat.

The Cheetah — a quadrupedal machine built by master roboteers Boston Dynamics and backed by Darpa, the Defense Department’s far-out research division — not only topped Bolt’s record-setting time. It also beat its previous top speed of 18 mph, set just a half-year ago.

“To be fair, keep in mind that the Cheetah robot runs on a treadmill without wind drag and has an off-board power supply that it does not carry,” a Boston Dynamics press release reminds us. “So Bolt is still the superior athlete.”

But the company is looking to change all that, and soon.

In recent months, the Cheetah team “increased the amount of power available to the robot. More power means faster motion and more margin in the actuators for better control,” Boston Dynamics CEO Marc Raibert tells Danger Room in an email. The robot-makers have also been “working on the control system, refining how the coordination of legs and back works and developing a better understanding of the dynamics.

He adds, “You can see that there is still room for improvement at the end of the video we just posted, where the robot starts to go faster, but loses control and trips.”

But those control systems are improving. The next major step is to build an untethered version — one with an onboard engine and operator controls that work in 3D.

“Our real goal is to create a robot that moves freely outdoors while it runs fast. We are building an outdoor version that we call WildCat, that should be ready for testing early next year,” Dr. Alfred Rizzi, the technical lead for the Cheetah effort, says in a statement.

It may sound a little outlandish. But keep in mind: Boston Dynamics has done this before. Its alarmingly like-like BigDog quadruped is able to tramp across ice, snow, and hills — all without the off-board hydraulic pump and boom-like device now used to keep the Cheetah on track. An improved version of the BigDog can haul 400 pounds for up to 20 miles. (See what we mean about robot brawn?) The company also has a biped ‘bot, Petman, that looks like a mechanical human — minus the head.

The idea behind these biologically-inspired robots is that legs can carry machines across terrain that would leave wheels or tracks stuck. To be a true partner to a human soldier, a robot has to walk like one, too. Darpa says Cheetah and company will “contribute to emergency response, humanitarian assistance and other defense missions.” But when the robot was first introduced, Boston Dynamics noted that its flexible spine would help it “zigzag to chase and evade.”

As if being brilliant and super-strong wasn’t unnerving enough.

Yeah, go ahead, yuck it up. Super fast stealth bots with the ability to hunt us down and kill us just makes me giggle too.

But at least killing us is all they can do. They can’t perform hideous medical experiments on us.

I have got to learn to keep my big mouth shut.

Surgeons at the University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System are developing new treatment options for obese kidney patients.

Many U.S. transplant centers currently refuse to transplant these patients due to poorer outcomes.
By simultaneously undergoing two procedures — robotic-assisted kidney transplantation and robotic-assisted sleeve gastrectomy — patients have only one visit to the operating room and one general anesthesia. Surgeons can utilize the same minimally invasive incisions.

Aidee Diaz, a 35-year-old Chicago woman, is the first patient in the world to have the combined procedure, according to UI surgeons. When Diaz was diagnosed with kidney disease and high blood pressure five years ago, doctors began intensive treatment, including chemotherapy and steroids, to treat abnormal protein production that was causing her kidney disease.

In Diaz’s case, her weight jumped from 180 pounds to 300 pounds, and she needed dialysis three times a week.
“Many obese patients come to us because they have been excluded from transplant waiting lists or been told that they must lose weight prior to transplantation,” said Dr. Enrico Benedetti, professor and head of surgery at UIC. “Unfortunately, successful weight loss in patients with chronic illness is uncommon and often unrealistic.”

On July 9, Dr. Subhashini Ayloo, assistant professor of surgery at UIC, performed the robot-assisted sleeve gastrectomy by removing 70 percent of Diaz’s stomach. The procedure created a smaller stomach through which ingested food can enter the digestive tract without diverting or bypassing the intestines.
Immediately following the sleeve gastrectomy procedure, Benedetti performed a living-related kidney transplant. Diaz said she appreciates the gift of both procedures — having kidney function with weight loss.

Surgeons at the UI Hospital routinely perform robotic-assisted kidney transplantation (more than 65 cases since 2009) and sleeve gastrectomies for weight loss (more than 150 since 2007). The team has data, in press, demonstrating the safety of robotic kidney transplantation in obese patients with a body mass index above 40 and up to 60.

“The combination of gastric sleeve surgery and kidney transplantation could provide patients with the greatest benefit post-transplantation, when there is the greatest risk related to the combined complications of obesity and renal failure,” said Ayloo, who is principal investigator of an ongoing clinical trial to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of the combined procedure.

The trial will determine whether simultaneous robotic-assisted kidney transplant and sleeve gastrectomy has fewer surgical complications and better medical outcomes for obese patients with end-stage renal disease compared to kidney transplant alone. The institutional review board (IRB) has approved the protocol but the trial is ongoing and results are not yet available.

Co-investigators include Benedetti, Dr. Pier Giulianotti, Dr. Jose Oberholzer and Dr. Ivo Tzvetanov of UIC.

Previous studies have reported outcomes of other laparoscopic bariatric procedures (gastric bypass and gastric banding) before and after kidney transplantation, but there is no data on sleeve gastrectomy combined with kidney transplantation, Ayloo said.

Yeah, right in my own state they are teaching robots how to remove kidneys. Well, it isn’t like we need them or anything.

But robots like that are wildly expensive and rare. It’s not like you can knock one up in the garage.

HA HA! Fooled you.

Of course you can build your own artificial intelligence. How could you think otherwise?

Ask any roboticist of a certain age, whether a professional or hobbyist, how they first got interested in robots. Odds are good they’ll mention a 1976 TAB book, written by David L. Heiserman, called Build Your Own Working Robot. The book described the construction of Buster, a small, wheeled robot. This was before the era of ubiquitous microprocessors. Buster’s brain was a mass of TTL logic chips that implemented surprisingly complex behaviours. In some ways, Buster was not unlike Grey Walter’s vacuum tube-based turtle robots from the late 1940s and was likely the first significant step forward in behavior-based robots since Walter’s turtles. Did you ever wonder what Dave did after writing those books or what he’s up to today? Read on to find out!

Two years after Build Your Own Working Robot was published, Dave Heiserman returned with another robot book that brought behaviour-based robots into the computer age. The new book, called How to Build Your Own Self-Programming Robot, described the construction of Rodney. Starting with no knowledge, Rodney explored and learned about his world through trial-and-error, using what he learned to anticipate future explorations.

All of this behaviour-based robotics stuff was considered a bit kooky by mainstream researchers in the 1970s, who favored top-down strong AI. Why bother building little insect-level robots that puttered around on the floor? Machines needed to understand deep philosophical questions first. They needed to represent the entire world symbolically and reason about it like human brains. Only then would we be ready to put them on wheels or legs. So even though hobbyists almost immediately set to work building Buster clones, Heiserman was largely ignored elsewhere. But mainstream AI was already running into dead ends, entering what’s now known as the AI Winter. And those Buster-building hobbyists were entering Universities and beginning to set the stage for a change in the direction of AI research. Before long, Rodney Brooks arrived on scene and coined the name ‘subsumption architecture’ to describe his own bottom-up, behaviour-based robots. Robotics and AI research were revitalized.

While you aren’t likely to see a mention of Heiserman in any official history of AI or robotics, it hard to imagine that his books didn’t play a part in those changes. Even today I find that most hobby roboticists still remember him. Many still have the two books shown above or one of his many other books. I was reminded of this recently when, during a visit the Dallas Personal Robotics Group, I ran across several copies of Build Your Own Working Robot in the group’s library. I picked one up, opened it, and realized it was the very copy that I had bought in 1976 and later donated to the DPRG. It got me thinking about all of this and I wondered whether Dave might still be around. I set out to find him and, along the way, I collected questions from other robot builders; questions they’d always wanted to ask the author whose books inspired their interest in robotics.

If you click on the link there’s a fascinating interview to go along with all this. But look at the dates. Over 40 years ago this happy go lucky madman was inviting people to participate in their own destruction and, instead of jailing him for treason, he’s been allowed to become a living icon to those who would gleefully flush humanity down the drain.

Then again, after watching the vicious screed that is passing for political discourse these days, maybe they have the right idea.

SexBot from Joseph Gonzales on Vimeo.

Listen to Bill McCormick on WBIG (FOX! Sports) every Friday around 9:10 AM.

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