Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The robots are coming

The invasion’s already in progress: the only question is when, not if, humanoid robots will work, play and war beside us

The Atlas robot created by Boston Dynamics. Photo by Boston Dynamics 
The Atlas robot created by Boston Dynamics. 

What does the word ‘robot’ bring to mind for you? There’s a good chance it’s some character from science fiction. C3PO from Star Wars, maybe, or, if you’re more pessimistically minded, the killing machine from the Terminator movies.

The concept of high-tech machines shaped like humans has been with us for the better part of a century. The word ‘robot’ itself, derived from the old Slavonic word rabota, meaning ‘servitude’, dates back to 1921, when it appeared in the Czech play R U R (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Karel Čapek. Then, the robots in the play were, of course, played by human actors, and thus humanoid in appearance. Yet this early work set the stage for what form robots should take in our imagination; from the novels and short stories of Isaac Asimov to the androids of the movies, they have, for the most part, looked, acted, and even experienced the world like us.

The reality of today’s work-a-day robots is quite different. Robots in the real world usually look nothing like us. On Earth they perform such mundane chores as putting car parts together in factories, picking up our online orders in warehouses, vacuuming our homes and mowing our lawns. Farther afield, flying robots land on other planets and conduct aerial warfare by remote control.

More recently, we’ve seen driverless cars take to our roads. Here, finally, the machines veer toward traditional R U R territory. Which makes most people, it seems, uncomfortable. A Harris Interactive poll sponsored by Seapine Software, for example, announced this February that 88 per cent of Americans do not like the idea of their cars driving themselves, citing fear of losing control over their vehicles as the chief concern.

The main difference between robots that have gone before and the newer variety is autonomy. Whether by direct manipulation (as when we wield power tools, or grip the wheel of a car) or via remote control (as with a multitude of cars and airplanes), machines have in the past remained firmly under human control at all times. That’s no longer true and now autonomous robots have even begun to look like us.

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