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Sunday, September 02, 2007

The Future is Robotic

As we head towards the end of the first decade of this millennium, there is, increasingly, an uneasy relationship between reality and science fiction as the seemingly inexhaustible progress of science and technology marches on. With Moore’s Law still ensuring that the storage capacity and processing power of computers is exponentially increasing year on year, we are rapidly seeing the sort of devices we once looked at with wonder in Star Trek becoming an everyday reality. Okay, so we don’t have phasers yet but we are close to having personalized media on demand anytime, anywhere. Biometrics are becoming a part of everyday life with even the Abbey Theatre using fingerprint detection for its employees to sign in. Computers and mobile electronics have become engrained in to our day to day lives and the latest communication devices mean ubiquitous access wherever we are in the world. But the one curious absence in our lives – the thing that for many of us would truly mean that science fiction had become science fact – are domestic robots. The great promise of the 1950’s for the western world was that the monotonous activity of housework would be taken over by humble human-serving robots. The great threat of the 1980’s was that these same humble robots would then take over us. Neither, fortunately or unfortunately, has happened yet.

In science fiction much of the ground work for the future has been laid by imaginative writers and visionaries such as Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. It was the latter who, in his 1942 short story “Runaround”, outlined the Three Laws of Robotics – laws which featured prominently in the movie version of another story of his, “I, Robot”.

I, Robot

These Laws state the following:
1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2) A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

These laws may appear fanciful to us, but in South Korea, where technology and automation are far more integrated into the fabric of society then anywhere else in the world, they are drawing up a code of ethics for robots. Why? Well, although South Korea and Japan suffer from some of the lowest birth rates in the world, they have not opted for immigration to meet their manpower needs. Instead they have looked to automation and robotics. Indeed, South Korea have set the goal of putting a robot into every household by the year 2015. As such, they have seen it as prescient to draw up a code along the lines of Asimov’s Three Law’s to deal with miscreant robots in the future.

In Japan, too, they are looking ever-increasingly to robots to help them with their manpower problems. With an ageing infirm population placing enormous pressure on the health care system, the government has laid down deadlines to ensure that robots will solve the problem. Japanese robots already can run, lean over and pour tea and by next year robots will be expected to work as cleaners. By 2012, they will be able to make beds and by 2016, to lift and carry the sick. Nurses, child-minders, home help, teachers – these are the proposed roles for robots in these future-obsessed Asian countries. Of course, the other less palatable roles that robots are being considered for are in the military and as sex dolls – two areas which have been driving forces in technology since time immemorial.

The development of robotics in these countries is truly breathtaking. For example, in the government funded ATR Laboratories outside Kyoto, Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro has created a life-like doppelganger of himself – effectively a robot twin – made from metal and polyurethane. Ishiguro believes that such a robot in the future will be the equivalent of the “Elixir of Youth”.

Professor Ishiguro’s Robotic Twin.

Like a robotic Dorian Gray, Ishiguro’s envisages a time when his robot twin can take classes and tutorials while the older, wizened real Professor stays at home and operates the robot remotely.

But a more immediate use for these life-like robots has come from the corporate sector. Kokoro, a Tokyo robotics firm that Ishiguro collaborates with, has seen huge demand for robotic receptionists and museum guides after Ishiguro made a replica of a famous Japanese newscaster, Ayako Fujii. In war-torn Afghanistan the US and British banks are considering using 200 robots to work as tellers as it is near-impossible to get English-speaking workers.

Again, seeing the proposed uses of robots, another famous science fiction film – Westworld – springs to mind. In that 1973 film, written and directed by Michael Crichton, an amusement park full of lifelike robots go on the rampage, railing against the abuse of their human masters.

The leader of the gang is played – with post-modern flair – by Yul Bryner, who in turn reprises his role as the GunSlinger from The Magnificent Seven - this time as a robotic version in the Western-themed part of the amusement park.

Again and again, fiction plays upon the dystopian fears surrounding technology. From Metropolis to Terminator, the Frankenstein’s Monster side of robotics seems to consistently rear its ugly head. Ishiguro has turned down approaches from US universities as he feels uncomfortable with the militaries involvement in robotics. In Japan, a constitutional ban constrains universities from working on military applications of robotics. Indeed, the basis of James Cameron’s Terminator movie is posited on the assumption that the military develops an artificially-intelligent machine which in turn goes to war with humanity. It is a threat that the Japanese, of all nations, are keenly aware of – as they are the only country to have felt the full devastating force of a military-engineered weapon of mass destruction - the Atom bomb.

Ishiguro notes that Asians are more pre-disposed towards robots then their western counterparts. When Honda showed off their robot, Asimov, he noted that Japanese adults immediately touched it, whereas European and Americans tend to hesitate. Perhaps it is a recognition of the de-humanizing affects of industrialization on the European sensibility that this fear of technology emanates from.,, or perhaps a genuine Christian fear of the unknown. Either way, it is safe to say that we will be looking with trepidation and awe at the East for the next few decades to see where robotics will lead us.

posted by Neil Leyden @ 7:16 p.m. 0 comments