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CONNECTED COMMENT (15/02/05)

 

Malevolent robots rebelling against their human masters and seeking to destroy mankind has been a staple sci-fi genre for decades. For the moment, at least, we appear to be reasonably safe but around the world engineers, scientists and programmers are getting disturbingly close to developing autonomous robotic devices that could one day -- and probably sooner than you might think -- force us to rethink our relationship with the machines that we create.

 

Most of today’s robots are relatively simple computer controlled mechanisms designed to carry out repetitive manufacturing tasks. Apart from lacking any kind of intelligence they tend to be bolted to factory floors and therefore unlikely to pose much of a threat. Nevertheless tremendous strides -- excuse the pun -- have been made in the past five years in the development of robots that can walk, talk, see, climb stairs and even have a passable stab at playing games like football and golf.

 

Whilst most of the cutting-edge development work goes on behind closed doors we have recently been given a tantalising glimpse of what is being achieved. Sony’s Qrio (pronounced ‘Curio’) is a fully functional, self-contained bipedal humanoid robot. At just over half a metre tall the worst injury it could inflict is to trip you up but the technology is clearly scalable and a human-sized version is not out of the question. In fact several larger walking robots have already been built; Honda’s Asimo (Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility) is one example, but this remains firmly under human control and its thirst for power -- the electrical kind -- is such that it can only function for a few minutes before its batteries are exhausted.

 

But back to Qrio, which represents a milestone in robotics by marrying mechanical agility with sophisticated computer processing, enabling it to run, jump, dance and roam free, exploring its environment. It is an impressive accomplishment and meeting Qrio for the first time can be an unnerving experience. Movement is eerily fluid and human-like, thanks to 38 motors in the robot’s legs, arms and torso. It can do some impressive tricks too, like pick up objects, sit down, stand up, and right itself if it falls over. A significant amount of computer processing power is assigned to motion control and stabilising the body and one of the spookiest illustrations of its abilities is to give the Qrio a gentle push to try to make it topple. It doesn’t, it actually pushes back! The first sign of robotic aggression perhaps?

 

Qrio ‘sees’ using two video cameras, giving it stereoscopic vision and depth perception, and it ‘hears’ with seven microphones. Sensory data is processed to enable it to locate sounds and objects, and move towards a sound source avoiding obstacles in its path. Facial and vocal recognition systems allow Qrio to respond to spoken commands from its ‘master’ and it can even hold a simple conversation, though it tends to be quite brief, unless you speak Japanese. 

 

At the moment Qrio is merely a demonstration of what can be done Only a handful of prototypes have been built so far and Sony is reluctant to talk about a production version, and even less willing to discuss the probable cost. Various ‘guesstimates’ put it at between £20,000 and £50,000. Even if it were to go on sale it would still be little more than a very expensive toy and only marginally more useful about the house than Sony’s Aibo robotic dogs that wander around kicking balls and doing simple tricks.

 

Nevertheless given the pace of development, particularly in the field of computer processing, it is not unreasonable to suppose that a humanoid robot, capable of independent operation and doing the dirty and unpleasant jobs we humans try to avoid is not that far from becoming a reality, possibly within the next decade. The crystal ball remains cloudy over the trickier question of artificial intelligence and current state of the art systems are generally reckoned to be no cleverer than the average ant but the die is cast and the very real prospect of sharing our world with a race of sentient artificial beings is undoubtedly an issue that philosophers and future generations will be obliged to confront. However, unless there are some dramatic improvements in battery efficiency when the robots do try to take over they had better do it quickly, or stay within reach of a mains socket.

 

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Ó R. Maybury 2005 1102

 

 

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