TIME: “Rise of the Robots” Special Issue

TIME recently released a special monograph, Rise of the Robots, which will be on display until the end of September 2013.  It is a surprisingly broad introduction to the cultural and scientific history of robots as well as the research forefront and future applications of these machines. One complaint I have is that the future of robotics and the present competencies of machines are muddled sufficiently in this volume that fiction and fact can be hard for the reader to discriminate.  Nevertheless a number of the authors write well about the promise and dangers of our robotic future.

In the category of Robot Smog, the photographic gallery features drones, androids, surgical machines, four-legged robo-beasts, personal robots, defense ‘bots and caregivers- supporting the case that we are on the cusp of a “Cambrian explosion” in robotic form and function.  The pictures show real, working robots fielded today intermingled with research robots that are posed expressively for the camera even though their province is limited to lab demonstrations. But the diversity of forms is unquestionable, and as I point out in Robot Futures this explosion stems from manufacturing advances in the areas of low-cost fabrication and design, coupled with far less-expensive, broadly available sensors and actuators appropriate for robots from one ounce to several hundred pounds in weight.  In “Drone Home,” Lev Grossman points out that these hardware advances, from motors to batteries, are powering the flying drone explosion that we are witnessing today.  This is not the story of computational speedups and Moore’s Law; this is the story of recent advances in electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and chemical engineering. It’s Revenge of the Engineers decade, and the key question we cannot answer is just how the pace of such innovation might continue- after all, there is no Moore’s law for mechanisms and battery technologies.

Grossman also warns that the ubiquity and dynamics of drone warfare may be taking our planet into a new state of perpetual war- or at least drone-powered lethal global action. If you find this idea frightening and thought-provoking, I heartily recommend a book I just finished, Dirty Wars by journalist Jeremy Scahill. His 500-page tome is a careful historical analysis of the organizational and political processes that have driven how the U.S. uses drones and targeted extrajudicial killings at such extreme frequency today.  Grossman points out that PW Singer explains how 76 countries are developing drones or shopping for them right now- and these are just the soon-to-be empowered organizations at the country level, never mind rebellion groups, terrorist organizations and even lone wolf operators.  Combining Grossman, Singer and Scahill’s comments and facts is enough to keep you awake all night, and nearly enough to make us all try and build a giant Faraday-caged city- a prison to keep that robot smog away from the air we breathe.

Grossman also describes the asymmetry of telepresence, which I discuss in Attention Dilution Disorder. He notes that physical avatars with robotic form set up an  unequal power relationship between organic humans and telepresent ones. At the same time, Gary Smith’s feature on telepresence demonstrates the positive power of telepresence thanks to a VGo robot that lets Lyndon Baty, who suffers from serious immune deficiencies, to attend school and socialize with his classmates.

For the more fanciful side, read David Bjerklie’s “Machines that Think,” also in the TIME special issue. Bjerklie argues that AI is catching up with all our human skills, and this challenges us if we attempt to define humanity in terms of what robots cannot do. He says that, even in the arena of common sense, robots are catching up with us. I beg to differ on this front, as I think the most dystopian future scenarios often involve very smart robots failing to behave well with people precisely because of the very lack of common sense. I do agree with Bjerklie that Turing-style challenges, where robots attempt to emulate humans perfectly- are losing significance though. What matters more is that robots are indeed becoming more socially functional, and we will be interacting with them every more thoroughly.  All this upcoming interaction will arrive well before the robots are socially excellent, so prepare for a mediocre robot-human interaction future.  Bjerklie identifies the new project, RoboEarth, that is meant to be “an one-line network and database repository for robots.” It seems my proposed Robo-Google project is coming to life already!

Will Knight of MIT Tech Review pens an article called “Will Robots Steal our Jobs?”  I wrote a blog post on this subject for Knight and MIT Tech Review, “We Need to Talk about the Burgeoning Robot Middle Class.” In fact Knight continues the classical argument- that since time immemorial people have been concerned that automation will displace jobs, and that the net net is that more jobs are created through innovation than lost to machines.  His final analysis: robots cannot carry on meaningful conversations or tell genuinely funny jokes, and as long as this is true, we’re alright in terms of employment. I beg to differ. Most robots can tell better jokes than me, and most jobs don’t require enough conversation and humor to survive this test. The dynamics of employment are changing, and constantly referring to the history of the Industrial Revolution is losing its applicability to our current, peculiar and unique situation. No kidding.

Daniel Cray’s article, “Search Engines,” describes advances in search and rescue robotics. While Cray describes the variety of innovative forms well, he misses the most important theme of all: the killer app coming to search and rescue is all about three-dimensional modeling and visualization. Robots and human rescuers alike will collect data with low-cost sensors that will revolutionize search and rescue because the disaster site will be mapped, modeled and analyzed computationally on a massive, high-fidelity scale. This is coming and, more than any other robotic advancement, it is this sensing and modeling revolution that will save a great many more lives in the near future.

I credit TIME for creating such a comprehensive summary of where robotics stands.

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