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The balance of chaos and order

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WE, ROBOT:  SKYWALKER’S HAND, BLADE RUNNERS, IRON MAN, SLUTBOTS, AND HOW FICTION BECAME FACT.  Mark Stephen Meadows. Guilford: Lyons Press. 2011. 227 pp. $19.95 soft cover.

Mention robots and people may consider the faithful but fatal HAL in 2001:  A Space Odyssey, the replicants war in Blade Runner, or the time-twisting race for humanity to avoid extinction in Terminator, or the humans plugged into a virtual world in Matrix, or any number of well-watched films.

Mark Stephen Meadows’ “We, Robot” mixes fiction and non-fiction in an eye-catching book that examines the present advances in robotics and speculates lightly on what the future may hold. Science fiction, he observes, enables conversations about the present particularly on topics that may be uncomfortable.  That this book mixes the unreal and the real says a lot about both the nature of the field and the level of knowledge most people have about robotics.

The author frames his text in the context of trips he makes to various companies that engineer robots-particularly Japan, the epicenter of many of the field’s advancements.  He presents himself as both a programmer (who has worked on AI programs) and a very human consumer of robots.

There are over 9 million robots in operation today. There are virtual robots like Google that sweep up online information about users from its many services and creates an electronic profile that affects the advertising that they see.  There are numerous robots used in a variety of fields-the automotive industry, food harvesting, firefighting, bread baking, car washes, bank telling, customer service representation, the making of music, and many other fields. Submersible robots help clean up offshore oil spills. Robots have been launched to explore other planets.

Human health relies on robotics, with physical enhancements for eyes, limbs like arms and legs, hearts, and ears. Brain-machine interfaces enable the controlling of artificial limbs for amputees, with motorized shoulders, elbows, wrists, hands, and legs.  Such brain-machine interfaces may be worn as helmets on the head, or they may be integrated with the human body such as wiring in abdomens. Robotic hands are now sensitive to the textures of what is being picked up and may execute manual maneuvers with impressive dexterity.

There are full-bodied exoskeletons that enable individuals with muscular dystrophy to literally climb mountains.  Soldiers can put on “wearable robots” and carry superhuman loads.  Such suits read the human skin through sensors, and servomotors in the suit respond according to the programming based on a robotic autonomous control system.  Such exoskeleton suits may be programmed to learn from the physical actions indicated by the person.

Unmanned autonomous vehicles (UAVs) have been used for years in various theatres of war and for surveillance in hostile airspaces (and even domestic ones for law enforcement, according to press reports). Those UAVs that carry missiles are remotely controlled and apparently require human decision-making based on rules of war before they may generally be used.  Other types of warbot weaponry include tanks, guided missile systems, and handheld drones that disarm bombs.  Some warbots carry supplies on various types of natural terrain (a photo of a PackBot shows a four-legged device carrying supplies).

Some military roboticists suggest that war-based robots may not only lower the human costs of war but may mitigate for human error in battle spaces.  Human soldiers, in surveys conducted by the US Army Surgeon General, pointed to concerning attitudes:  “The survey pointed out that fewer than half of the soldiers serving in Iraq thought that noncombatants should be treated with respect.  A fifth of the soldiers claimed that all civilians should be treated as militarily trained insurgents, more than a third believed torture was acceptable, and only half said they would report a colleague for unethical behavior. Ten percent of the U.S. soldiers in Iraq admitted to abusing civilians or unnecessarily damaging civilian property.”

On the other side, armed war robots have accidentally shot friendly forces in multiple continents.  Given the diverse supply chain for code, robots often do more than they were requested to do in the design specs.  Such robots are also hackable.  Meadows also points to the perverse incentive of removing human agency from the destruction of war bots, which might diminish a sense of moral responsibility. Future warfare may be between ‘bots.  There is the anticipation that artificial intelligence (AI) will eventually “make combat decisions and act within legal and policy constraints without necessarily requiring human input” according to a 2009 US Air Force report on unmanned aircraft systems. This phenomenon is not just occurring in the US; rather, more than 40 countries are developing UAVs.

The author projects:  “A man sitting in his living room in the Middle East will suddenly be covered by small metal dots, and when the dots quickly disappear, he will fall dead to the floor. Drones will not only send bombs down, but they will also be used to bring data up, as well as packages, paperwork, and abductees.  Drones are becoming smaller, changing from airplanes into hummingbirds.  Tiny robots are embedding themselves in mountains and fields, forming grids in the Earth, grids in the air, and grids in the walls.  Even smaller robots are making appearances as houseflies. Flexible blobs are squeezing under doors.  Particles are hovering near light bulbs. Any surface may be a surveillance device, any object a bomb.”

Humans use robots for decision-making. One example stemmed from the financial collapse of 2008 - 2009, with many bankers and financial professionals using the shared assumptions of a Gaussian copula algorithm to understand paired risks-that severely underestimated risks in the financial markets.  This false sense of assurance resulted in a very expensive “system wobble.”  People would have been better off to be more skeptical about the conclusions of a machine (a model is only as good as its underlying assumptions and the information put into it) and to entertain a greater diversity of computerized analytical tools.

Various robots serve as information-collectors from the world-in the sense of sensors and analysts.  One charming example is the PaPeRo robot which shoots a light into a fluid and analyzes the chemical compositions of the contents based on the light emanating from that fluid.  It can work as a kind of robotic sommelier.

A boom in the personal robot industry is expected by a professional robotics association, with more than $35 billion estimated to be in this industry by 2021 (it’s at $6 billion today). The term “robot” comes from a Czech word robata, which means “indentured work.” 

Mark Stephen Meadows plays on the idea of machine slavery to serve people.  Certainly, there are robots that cook specialty dishes; vacuum and wash floors; pick up toys; do laundry, and wash dishes.  Still others provide “sex” and “companionship”.  The author describes knowing of sexpot robots for those with appetites for “thalidomide babybots, amputee grandmabots”.

While the author predicts emotional interchanges with robots in multiple directions, he also describes a reflexive human fear of looking at a humanoid android is looks human except for certain aspects (a phenomena defined as the “uncanny valley” effect):  “If the skin is a little too waxy, if the face is slightly disproportionate, if the eyes are matte instead of gloss, if the wig is a little bit discolored, if the lips are the wrong color-these things would be noticed and would trigger, on an instinctual level, an odd feeling.”

In Japan, some robot celebrities include the Seiko-chan and Murata Boy bicycling robots.  One that has gained international renown is the ASIMO (Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility), which looks like an astronaut, and which can dance and entertain.  The author himself describes his own befuddled lust for the HRP-4C, which sings and models a dress on a runway-but almost overheats before she can return back stage.  He quips:  “I’ve been turned on by ink on a page before, or pixels on a screen, so why not a robot?”

When HRP-4C is singing, the author and the she-bot experience a close encounter:  “Leaning in to look a little closer at the mouth that seemed to open into a screaming position (with no sound emerging from it), I noticed how the silicone was bending and stretching when it opened. Her head jerked back, like a horse.  Mine did too, as I was a little startled, and didn’t want one of those 50 kg. arms to crack my skull…All the benefits of a runway model/ superstar singer, but with none of the vanity, bulimia, or cocaine habits.”  Then, he realizes HRP-4C is not making eye contact, and it was as if he was meeting someone “that had had their shadow surgically removed, someone that had suffered an accident of a spiritual sort, and was in a pain I couldn’t understand.”

Humanoid forms are hard for robot engineers to design because of the problem of locomotion and balance-particularly going up and down stairs. The benefit of the humanoid form is the relatability of people to the machine, but there are many design downsides such as the machine weight and costs.

In a similar way, human intelligence is not what machine intelligence needs to emulate, the author suggests.  The author suggests that emotions are critical to intelligence but may be hard to program.  Machines can emulate some forms of human intelligence, but with so many humans on earth, it may be better for machines to do what they do best-such as the fast crunching of information or other uses.  One goal of artificial intelligence is to create a system “able to contextualize random information, recontextualize it, predict, adapt, lump things together into general categories, maintain contradictions, and understand why.”

Robots come in many sizes-from lines of code to robotic bees (to help pollinate food plants) to nano-sized machines.  There are “memristors” (memory resistors) that calculate and store data at the same time and are used to model lower-level animal brains’ learning and memory by simulating neural pathways and associations between ideas. Some are projecting data gloves that may handle nanotech-size atomic elements.  Some scientists are experimenting with “wetware hacking” by taking lower-level mammal brain cells and chemically welding them to electrical circuit boards to analyze and connect neural systems, computers, and animal behavior.

Mark Stephen Meadows has worked at Xerox PARC, the Stanford Research Institute, and Oracle as a consultant.  He started two companies to build software.  He holds some patents for his work.

Shalin Hai-Jew works for Kansas State University. She lives in Manhattan.

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