Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Future of Robotics

Ever since I picked up my first Isaac Asimov novel, I have been fascinated with robotics and what they could mean to the future of humanity. ( has a very concise description of the field and its evolution) What always struck me in my pursual of this topic was that robots were always slated to be of service to man. For example, the Robot Institute of America defines a robot as a programmable, multi-functional manipulator designed to move material, parts, tools, or specialized devices, through variable programmed motions, for the performance of a variety of tasks. Like Asimov, I thought they could be so much more -- human.

When I started my education in the computer science field, my ultimate goal was to become an artificial intelligence/robotics engineer. The ethical dilemmas and concerns presented by Asimov in his novels, particularly in his Law of Robotics, heightened the interest and enthusiasm I felt when following the advancement of robotics. My interest was sparked all over again when I read an article about a robot created by Steve Yohanan to study touch and how touch is important in communication. Read the article here. The robot creature looks like an eyeless and mouthless rabbit and seems harmless enough. Depending on how this creature is touched, it can interpret your feelings and generate its own responses to how it is being touched – all recorded in sensors. Yohanan hopes that in the future, robotic pets will be created that then later allow someone else to feel what you were feeling when you were petting it.

“Yohanan imagines that the creature might lead to the development of a robotic pet that could connect couples who don't see each other often. For example, a wife who works different hours than her husband could convey her mood through touch to the creature, and the husband would sense that mood through the robot when he came home.”

The implications of this type of research are profound. While not specifically addressed in the article, when you couple a robot – a piece of technology, that can interpret how it feels through touch and convey its feelings through touch, with a robot that can move, talk, and process data at fast speeds, what you get is a sentient being – a being capable of feelings and emotions and intelligence. Additionally, the type of interpretations being performed by this robot will not be confined to touch much longer. It will develop into vocalizations. This is all beyond a robot emulating a human or performing a pre-coded set of facial expressions/parrot conversations; it is beyond a tool that can answer phones and direct calls—it is almost human, and IT IS EXCITING! (See some really neat human-like robots here.)

The ethicists should be swarming over this development. The self-aware robot is no longer a matter of future possibilities. The ability for intelligence and feelings to merge into one robot is fast approached and nothing will be able to stop it. [A discussion between top robotics engineers, ethicists, and artists about the ethics of robotics is discussed on The Tech Museum of Innovation’s website.]

The question that burns in my mind is whether a robot will be content to be of service to man if it is more intelligent, is self-aware, and capable of forming its own opinions and feelings.

(I have no doubt People for the Ethical Treatment of Robots will be forming during this century.)


  1. If Hansons or anybody could make a humaniform robot as gorgeous as Daneel Olivaw (from Isaac Asimov's Robot series) I would die happy! (After having my enjoyment with said robot, of course).

  2. Oh wow. First, thanks for visiting my page, and secondly, yay for loving Asimov. I don't think the androids of Asimov's will take much longer to create. At least in this century.

  3. Asimov, of course, his Robot series is rightly famous. Also, Philip K. Dick! 'Do Androids dream of electic sheeps' is among the best S.F. novels I've ever read. It deals with the ethics of Robots, Androids especially, in a very moving way. I you haven't read it yet, don't hesitate. Riddley Scott's 'Blade Runner' was an good film adaptation of the novel. I prefer the book though.

    As for the main topic of your blog, I am not that enthousiastic... For sure, it's interesting. It's good thing people do research on touch, a sense we know little about.

    Yet the very idea of husband and wife who need a intermediary pet to know how the other one feels frightened me... if the society we live in evolves in that direction, we should not work at inventing such pets, but at changing the society we live in!

    Hopefully, when you are a doctor in cybernetics yourself *wink wink*, you'll rather do research about how robots can help people to work less, so that they can spend more time with their beloved ones.

  4. But that is at the crux of the problem, Billy. If robots can feel and think, who are we to say that in their self-awareness they should work for us?

  5. True, for that respect. Quoting Descartes, 'cogito, ergo sum', 'I think, therefore I am'. Then, if androids existed that/who were able to think about their own existence, it would be as unethical to use them than to use human slaves. Fascinating new philosophical topic indeed.

  6. While the field of robotics and automation is fascinating, it isn't anywhere as exotic as sci-fi writers make it.

    The human brain is far too complex to be replicated enough to create an independent existence. There is no way a robot, no matter how complex, could ever "appreciate" the beauty of a sunset or the smell of soil after the first rain or the waves crashing on a rocky beach. It can only generate a data file even if it had all the sensors to experience.

    Ultimately, the robots will only amount to doing tasks that humans either cannot do or don't want to do. Some others will be toys. In this way, we already have robots like automatic elevators that takes us up and down or welding robots that weld cars precisely.

    It is very highly unlikely if not impossible to have greedy robots, selfish robots, egotistical robots, showoff robots, short-tempered robots, whiny robots or needy robots. It will remain an exclusive domain of we humans.

    Until then, sci-fi writers can write about a robot who cries when the master is dead or who says "god damnit" when its foot hits a table leg accidentally. Such surrealism vis à vis robots is actually good because it makes us aware of how special yet flawed we humans are!

  7. I respectfully disagree Sir Vincent. Our brains are complex certainly, but they are something that have evolved through time. Robots too will evolve with our help, and I do not think it is only science fiction. At one point, the personal computer was science fiction and nobody thought that we could ever have such computational abilities at our fingertips, and just look at what we have now. We are a mass of complicated electric signals that I know science will be able to merge with robotics. Why, after I wrote this blog, I read about a monkey that was controlling a robotic arm with his mind. They placed small filaments into the motor function part of the brain, and secured his real hands behind his body, and after practicing, was able to control the arm with his brain. If we can start to understand these connections, and merge all of these into one being such as a robot, I have no doubt that they will be as sentient as we are, with all the attendant emotions.

  8. Here's a couple of ideas for us to think about.

    Robots are made to enrich and free up humans from dangerous and menial jobs such as welding and bomb detection. But if we invent more capable robots and they take over jobs such as maintenance workers and painters, what role will humans have in society? Will we get lazier and lazier as we watch robots mowing the lawn (and that's already a reality)?

    How advanced do we want our robots? Do we want them to be doctors and nurses? Policemen and soldiers? Trash men and car repairmen?

    I see a lot of promise in robotics, but I also see risk. We need to find a balance of self awareness and subservience to accomplish our goals of advancing our society, but treating our creations with respect.

    Another movie dealing with the issues of robots was Bicentennial Man with Robin Williams. A man creates a robot advanced enough that, after serving the family, seeks to advance himself in becoming more human. The film follows his quest during the different stages of him becoming human.

  9. Interestingly enough, if you look up Bicentennial Man, the idea for it comes from Isaac Asimov. *smiles*

  10. Yeah, I looked it up after I posted. I had no idea it was based on an Asimov book.

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  12. I agree shellz. It would seem to me that modeling a human brain successfully enough that a robot could attain awareness is nothing more than a technological challenge. It's simply a question of complexity, and will undoubtedly be overcome with time and technological advancement. Afterall the brain is a biological computer, yes? It's organic, but it's basic processes are the same. Information travels from one part to another in the form of electrical signals as you pointed out, and trigger some response, just like a computer. We've already achieved the same basic processes with inorganic materials, so why anyone would assume that such a feat was just impossible I don't understand.

    The only thing that could sidetrack our efforts, would be divine interference, and of course then everything goes out the window anyway. It doesn't necessarily make the task impossible, but it heightens the chances that there would be some unknown and incomprehensible factor that could not be overcome.

    Now that I think about it, such research would seem to have applications in brain reconstruction for people who have suffered brain trauma like alzheimer's or a physical brain injury.

    The point is, this goal should definitely be pursued whether it is ultimately possible or not as it will probably yield very substantial breakthroughs along the way. Maybe this will even lead to immortality someday when we can upload our minds into a robot and shed our dependence on food, air, water, gravity, etc.. It would enable long space voyages and dramatically increase the number of potential homeworlds or do away with the need altogether. Who knows, maybe it could even make us all as smart as vince...well, alright...thats asking a little much.